As Nepal’s PM Visits India To ‘Mend Fences’, What’s His Real Agenda?

Posted on February 19, 2016 in GlobeScope, Politics

By Deepak Adhikari for Youth Ki Awaaz:

Nepal's Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, also known as KP Oli, observes a minute of silence for earthquake victims during an event organised to mark the 18th National Earthquake Safety Day and the official launch of earthquake reconstruction efforts in Bungamati village, Nepal January 16, 2016. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar - RTX22MXW
Image Credit: Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar.

Two weeks after India lifted a four and half month ‘unofficial blockade’ on Nepal, allowing passages to hundreds of cargo trucks and tankers into Nepal from a major border crossing, Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli is on a six-day visit to India. Oli, the 64-year-old politico with a sharp tongue and fond of using Nepali proverbs, may be one of many foreign dignitaries visiting New Delhi in recent months (French President Francois Hollande was the chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations), but back home in Nepal, the trip carries enormous significance. Over the weekend and thereafter, Nepalis would keenly follow the jaunt, with Nepali media dissecting every gesture and body language of the Nepali leader and his Indian counterpart, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Oli left Nepal on the anniversary of an important day in the country’s history. On the 7th day of the Nepali month of Fagun (February 19th of this year), Nepal celebrates Democracy Day. On this day in 1951, a year before Oli was born, Nepal, aided by India then under Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru, got its own independence from the autocratic Rana regime who ruled the country for more than 100 years. On February 19, before heading off to New Delhi, Oli attended a function in Kathmandu to mark Democracy Day. He is to attend another Democracy Day related function at Nepal’s embassy in New Delhi.

The official visit of Nepal’s Prime Minister, therefore, starts only on February 20th. In Nepal, the visit has been portrayed as one focused on bilateral trade, business investment and support for post-quake reconstruction. But given the strain in relations between the two countries following Nepal’s promulgation of a new constitution in September last year, the visit is seen by both sides as an opportunity to mend fences.

In reality, New Delhi worked hard to make it happen by hastening the end of the border blockade that crippled life in Nepal, exacerbating already increasing anti-India sentiments. The blockade also bolstered the demands for inclusion and greater representation by Madhesis, who have close cultural, linguistic and marital ties across the border in India. Oli, a leftist politician and one-time ally of India, began courting China as soon as he came to power in October. Nepal struck a deal with China to import petroleum products, ending years of Indian monopoly, although its modalities and details are yet to be worked out.

He took advantage of India’s nervousness regarding Beijing’s offers. First, he made it clear that he will visit India only after the lifting of the ‘unofficial blockade’. At the same time, he also deployed his spokespersons to talk about the possibility of making Beijing his first port of call. Nepal’s prime ministers have traditionally chosen India as their first foreign destination. Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known as Prachanda was an exception, but not long after the visit, he had to step down.

Sudheer Sharma, the editor in chief of Kantipur, Nepal’s most influential newspaper, said Oli employed both ‘nationalism card’ (raising fears of India’s growing interference in Nepal’s internal matters) and the ‘China card’, playing each with dexterity. “After he became prime minister, Oli began with the ‘nationalism card’. But soon he started to use yet another card—the China card—that he played to the hilt,” Sharma told Youth Ki Awaaz. “It seems India’s leaders changed their mind after Kathmandu started playing the China card. Oli sent his emissaries on trips to Beijing, giving hints of an imminent major deal with the northern neighbour. Although Nepal and China made some headways, with preparations for agreements coming close, Oli didn’t strike the deal and waited for New Delhi to reach out to him.”

Despite India and China working together, with both countries’ businesses booming, Oli was able to exploit the lingering suspicion, said Sharma. “The two countries have worked together on a number of issues. But, the Indian officials are yet to fully grasp Beijing’s opaque ways of dealings,” he said. “Therefore, despite knowing that China would not displease New Delhi by expanding its influence in Nepal, they were not fully assured. New Delhi came under pressure from Indian media, think tanks and Western powers who criticized the Indian policy for pushing Nepal closer to China.”

Amid all these geopolitical battles, the losers were the Madhesi protesters, who had counted on New Delhi as their trusted ally. Indeed, the Madhesis began their sit-in protest along the border in Birgunj, the major trade route, only days after India stopped sending its cargo trucks citing unrest along the border. The Madhesi Morcha, an alliance of four parties representing the protesters, opposed the country’s new constitution that divided Nepal into seven federal states, demanding that the southern flatlands be carved into two states. They also demanded an amendment to the constitution to ensure proportional representation for Madhesis and other minority groups in state intuitions and delineation of electoral constituencies based on population.

Despite reservations from the lawmakers of Madhesi Morcha, who boycotted the voting, Nepal’s parliament passed an amendment to the new constitution on January 23, a move that addressed some of the demands. Still, the issue of federal boundaries was to be settled through a commission. A day later, India’s external affairs ministry welcomed the move through a statement, calling it “positive developments.” By early February, the cargo movements across Raxaul-Birgung resumed. Two days later, the leaders of the Madhesi Morcha, perhaps heartbroken by India’s hasty rapprochement, formally called off the sit-in protest.

Thus, the longest and economically most damaging political protest in Nepal’s recent history ended: it saw the death of 60 people including nine police officers, an Indian citizen and scores of children and women. It was one of the most brutal suppressions of popular protests in Nepal. It also created a huge chasm between Nepal’s hill-origin people and the Madhesis.

It also showed that New Delhi’s decision to use economic embargo as a coercive tool of foreign policy was flawed. “The Indian blockade was meant to intimidate Nepal into amending the constitution or foment unrest in Kathmandu. But the strategy failed as the blockade led to an unprecedented upsurge in Nepali nationalism,” said Post Bahadur Basnet, a political commentator and former visiting fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, a New Delhi think tank.

Echoing Sharma of Kantipur newspaper, Basnet said India, in inviting Oli, wanted to “show the closeness of the relationship between the two countries but also acknowledge that Nepal falls under India’s sphere of influence.” He added: “India did not want to let Oli visit China first. It wants to prove its hegemonic power in South Asia and that Nepal has not slipped out of India’s influence. Should India continue to blockade Nepal? It is almost next to impossible.” Oli, in his twilight years of his political career, may go to any length to prolong the tenure of his fragile coalition government, according to Basnet. He also thinks that by inviting Nepal’s prime minister to visit the country, India was looking for a “course correction.” Basnet told Youth Ki Awaaz: “The visit means thaw in bilateral relations, but it will take years for the relation to become normal.”