China's commercial leverages no doubt have an enormous lure of fancy aid, trade and investments, yet these can never replace India's place in Nepalese lives
The Indian Army Chief's May 15 remark, wondering aloud if Nepal had been lately ratcheting up things against New Delhi “at someone else's behest”, has pushed India-Nepal ties into a downward spiral with no signs of early recovery. General MM Naravane’s comment was followed by Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli blaming India for a sudden spike in number of COVID-19 infections in Nepal. Oli went a step further to say that the Indian strain of the virus was more lethal than that of China or even Italy.
Later, his Deputy Prime Minister, Ishwar Pokhrel, chose to blame the Indian Army Chief, who also holds honorary rank of General in Nepalese Army, for having “hurt sentiments of Nepali Gurkha army personnel who laid their lives to protect India”.
What is worrying is that this hot-summer duel has not been limited to their sharp and shrill semantics. Some of its murmurs can be traced to November 2, when India issued a new map for the Ladakh Union Territory. This map had drawn a rather quick and harsh response from China. Yet in Nepal, it had led to relatively mute protests and protestations with the Nepalese elite asking for a parallel map to be issued projecting their territorial claims against India.
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On November 12, Oli clarified that no such parallel map will be issued, and Nepal, instead, would seek diplomatic solutions via foreign secretary talks, which are yet to start. Oli was being regularly contradicted by his ministers, and on May 20, Nepal's Council of Ministers, led by Oli, adopted and publicised Nepal's new map showing 335 sq km of Limpiyadhura, Kalapani and Lipulekh as their territory.
Since then, the Oli government has been talking of adopting these territorial claims in a resolution in the National Assembly followed by an amendment to incorporate this new map as part of their 2015 Constitution, which itself had been a major bone of contention between Kathmandu and New Delhi. The resolution that requires a two-third majority could not be presented to the National Assembly on May 27 as the Nepali Congress has asked for more time to respond. Once this map is adopted as part of Constitution, no successive governments in Nepal will be able to retreat from this premise of their territorial sovereignty, which should worry India’s policy makers.
What is worrying is that India's response so far remains awaited. Unless there are back channel parleys to which the public is not privy, all that New Delhi has done so far is to urge Kathmandu to wait till both sides have recovered from COVID-19. On an incremental basis though, India keeps denying accusations by the Nepalese of being snubbed diplomatically, silenced politically and suffocated economically, say by India's decision to block import of Nepalese tea and palm oil. This has raised spectre of quasi-official blockade of 2015-16 or even one of 1989.
Indeed, starting from 1989, such reactions by New Delhi have been driven by Kathmandu’s increasing proximity to Beijing. This time round, the ruling regime’s indulgence and dependence on China's aid and advise has reached unprecedented levels. India's underlying angst about Beijing being singularly responsible for the formation, unity and survival of Nepal's Communist Party in power has flared up as Nepal's retching its new territorial claims and setting up of new border posts coincides with recent India-China border tensions.
India has also so far failed to stop Nepal's inching closer to China, and the two are likely to grow further closer in coming times. Is New Delhi party responsible for Kathmandu’s drift? For example, this time again, failing to find audience with New Delhi to discuss the ongoing crises, Nepal's foreign secretary Shankar Das Bairagi found an easier audience with Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi. Hou has emerged as China’s interlocutor with various power centres in Nepal — and her meeting with Bairagi is believed to be the trigger for General Naravane's comment.
However, is such a response going to improve India-Nepal ties or further push Nepal towards China? This ever-intensifying China-linkage of India-Nepal equations must be seen as part of a pattern where China has gradually expanded its engagement and influence in India's periphery; the situation with Bhutan being the other apt example of this pattern.
This development has disrupted the time-tested India-Nepal relationship of 'roti-beti' grind, which explains the porous borders underlying shared food and family ties. Nepalese have almost all rights of Indian citizens except voting rights in India. Likewise, over 600,000 Indians live in Nepal and many have cross-border families. The Gurkha Rifles (about 30,000 soldiers recruited from Nepal) have had a place of pride in Indian Army, and nearly 130,000 of their pensioners are living in Nepal.
China's commercial leverages no doubt have an enormous lure of attractive packages of aid, trade and investments — yet these can never substitute India's place in Nepalese lives. India must carefully calibrate to use perseverance by highlighting what is India's niche and avoid competing with China. This indeed, has been the policy of the Modi government, emphasising religious, cultural, linguistic, historical, and people-to-people ties.
As New Delhi wakes up to halt this irreversible slide in India-Nepal ties, it is equally important that Nepalese leaders also become alive to their long-term core national interests. They must not cross the many red lines that their Chinese ‘friends’ will present to them as Nepal's autonomy and self-pride, and present India as a hurdle in Nepal’s march into its promised future.Swaran Singh is Professor and Chairman, Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Twitter: @SwaranSinghJNU. Views are personal.