Nepalese move could have been made at “someone else’s” behest.
It has been an open secret that KPS Oli leans on China not just for ideological but also political support. But few knew that the Nepalese Prime Minister was an expert virologist. This revelation came a few days ago when he authoritatively said that the Coronavirus strain coming from India was more lethal than that of China. While observers scratch their heads to find out exactly where Oli got this bit of critical information and the scientific material that he has to have made this astounding claim, the timing and the context in which the remark was made is more important.
The Nepalese Prime Minister’s statement came in the midst of Kathmandu upping the ante over a border issue with India. Nepal released a new political map that showed Lipulekha Pass and Kalapani as part of that country. India strongly objected to the claim, calling it “cartographical assertion” and “artificial enlargement of territorial claims”, pointing out that these areas fell squarely within Indian territory. Indian Army chief, General MM Naravane dismissed Nepalese claims, alleging that the Nepalese move could have been made at “someone else’s” behest. He was clearly hinting at China.
Oli’s government not just slapped its claim on the territories firmly in India’s jurisdiction but also unilaterally published a new political map that showcased these regions as part of Nepal.
No need for Nepal to have provoked India by suddenly publishing a new political map.
The Nepalese government was naturally outraged at the insinuation, but it ought not to overreact to truth. Even before Oli became Prime Minister, he was seen as being very close to the Chinese. There were reports that Beijing played a role in ensuring that he became the Prime Minister. Since then, Oli had repeatedly tried to bait New Delhi and please China. More recently, the Chinese leadership is said to have brokered peace in the faction-ridden communist party which rules in Kathmandu. Two of the senior-most leaders of the party, Madhav Kumar Nepal and Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, had raised a banner of revolt against the Prime Minister’s style of functioning. When there appeared a real possibility of the rift going out of hand and threatening the survival of the government, China stepped in and placated the rebel leaders.
But both Beijing and Oli realized that the peace was fragile and steps were needed to cement his position. And what better way to do so than to whip up anti-India sentiments in Nepal! There was no way that either Madhav Kumar Nepal or Prachanda would side with New Delhi or against Oli when it came to Nepal’s ‘sovereign interests’. Thus, Oli’s government not just slapped its claim on the territories firmly in India’s jurisdiction but also unilaterally published a new political map that showcased these regions as part of Nepal. This left Prachanda and Madhav Kumar with little space to manoeuvre. Nepal and India have a dialogue mechanism in place and leaders of the two countries are in constant touch with one another. There was no need for Nepal to have provoked India by suddenly publishing a new political map.
Why did Nepal act in Coronavirus pandemic on the backdrop of the border row?
Oli has brushed aside the accusation of acting at China’s behest and sought to project the allegation as an insult to the people of Nepal. Can he explain why he made the entirely inappropriate and unnecessary comparison between India and China on the Coronavirus pandemic in the backdrop of the border row? Clearly, it was meant to please Beijing, and that too at a time when the latter faces a global backlash for its mishandling of the disease and its spread.
India-bashing is an old and tested tool that Nepal’s elite policymakers have used when it suited their domestic political purposes. Members of the country’s erstwhile royal family did it, and the communists have indulged in it too. Ironically, at various times, both the royalty and the communists fell back on India to support them whenever they faced a crisis at home. For decades, the monarchy prevailed in Nepal, and one of the important reasons for that was because New Delhi supported it. However, King Gyanendra had to abdicate the throne in the mid-2000s after New Delhi made its displeasure known on his style of anti-democratic functioning and his disregard for Indian advice.
India managed to strike an agreement with the Maoists and the Nepali Congress, underlining that they needed to accept each other in the democratic political space to end the monarchy.
When Prachanda first became Prime Minister in 2008
Oli cannot have forgotten that the Maoists of his country got a permanent place in the mainstream of Nepal’s politics mainly because of India’s efforts. Keeping aside its wariness over the communists aside, New Delhi had thrown in its lot with them and helped in their transit to the ballot from the bullet. This they did even though the Nepali Congress party, which has traditionally been pro-India, had reservations. India managed to strike an agreement with the Maoists and the Nepali Congress, underlining that they needed to accept each other in the democratic political space to end the monarchy. When Prachanda first became Prime Minister in 2008, it was largely due to the groundwork that India had done.
Prachanda had by then acquired the image of being a hardliner, but to his credit, he has mellowed down with time, even seeking to become some sort of a statesman. It cannot be said that China no longer influences him, but at least he is more of a pragmatist who understands the necessity of not rocking the India-Nepal relationship. Oli, on the other hand, has gone from bad to worse in the Indian context.
So how does New Delhi handle the situation from here on?
First, it must not succumb to the temptation of over-reacting, because over-reaction will help in consolidating disparate elements in the Nepalese political and academic ecosystem against ‘big brother’ India. New Delhi can, theoretically, do a lot to harm Nepalese interests. It can close its open borders with Nepal and introduce all sorts of restrictions. But such moves will give leverage to China to further step up its interventions in Nepal, which would not be in Indian interests. Second, India must not wade into the internal politics of Nepal; let the Maoists settle their differences internally— if they cannot and the so-called unified communist party implodes, so be it.
Finally, India must retain faith in the deep-rooted people-to-people ties that India and Nepal share. They cannot be destroyed through political interventions, though they can be set back to some extent. Kathmandu must realize that China is too far off geographically to be an effective replacement for India when it comes to the crunch. And yes, the communist party is not God-ordained to rule Nepal forever.
1. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of PGurus.