PM’s Nepal visit a counter to China’s grow­ing in­flu­ence

This visit had twin pur­poses: one was to re­as­sure Nepal that In­dia is an all-weather friend and an­other that the devel­op­ment of Nepal is best achieved with In­dia’s help.

The Sunday Guardian - - & Comment Analysis -

Dur­ing his Nepal visit, Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi said that In­dia stands shoul­der to shoul­der with the peo­ple of Nepal. PM Modi and Nepal PM K.P. Oli laid the foun­da­tion stone for a 900 MW Arun III hy­dro­elec­tric power plant project in Kath­mandu. The Nepal PM re­quested the In­dian PM to fa­cil­i­tate the ex­change of de­mon­e­tised cur­rency notes held in the Nepali bank­ing sys­tem and by the gen­eral pub­lic at the ear­li­est. Modi’s third visit to Nepal can be seen pri­mar­ily as a bal­anc­ing act to China. This was also the first high­level visit since the for­ma­tion of the new gov­ern­ment in Nepal. Modi’s visit took place around a month af­ter Oli vis­ited In­dia. There is fresh con­sen­sus be­tween the two coun­tries to build ties on the con­cept of “equal­ity, mu­tual trust and re­spect”. In­dia-Nepal re­la­tions have nose­dived since 2016. Oli has been ac­cus­ing In­dia of in­ter­fer­ing in Nepal’s in­ter­nal mat­ters. Dur­ing the elec­tions Oli and his party tried to light the fire of na­tional fer­vour against In­dia. Af­ter win­ning the elec­tion and be­com­ing Prime Min­is­ter, he took the cal­cu­lated move of trav­el­ling to In­dia first.

The im­por­tance and rel­e­vance of PM Modi’s visit has to be an­a­lysed in the con­text of larger world pol­i­tics, specif­i­cally Asian. Af­ter the Dok­lam stand­off, the In­dian PM has be­come more cau­tious about Nepal. Pol­i­tics in Nepal in the last two years es­ca­lated into an anti-In­dia wave and in­vited China into very close prox­im­ity. The open bor­der sys­tem be­tween In­dia and Nepal—five ma­jor states share their bound­aries with Nepal—needs vig­i­lance on In­dia’s part about Chi­nese pres­ence.

Ear­lier, Chi­nese con­nec­tions to Nepal were based on Ti­bet un­til the 1980s. Since 1986 it started in­creas­ing its vol­ume of trade. Cur­rently, China’s for­eign di­rect in­vest­ment in Nepal is US$79.26 mil­lion, whereas In­dia’s is that of $36.63 mil­lion. China has re­cently de­vel­oped a po­lice academy for Nepal with all the mod­ern fa­cil­i­ties. Chi­nese in­ter­net providers are break­ing In­dian mo­nop­oly in Nepal. Ev­ery year China in­vites thou­sands of Nepalese stu­dents to pur­sue dif­fer­ent cour­ses. Chi­nese cities have be­come ma­jor tourist des­ti­na­tions for Nepal. Chi­nese lan­guage cen­tres are mush­room­ing.

Ear­lier, China’s Nepal pol­icy was neu­tral and sup­ported all hues of po­lit­i­cal sys­tem. Dur­ing the monar­chy, it cas­ti­gated the Maoist forces. Dur­ing the reign of King Gya­nen­dra, China used to call the Maoists “mis­cre­ants”, “anti-state rebels” and “hi­jack­ers” of Mao’s name. China also tried to bring the monar­chy and the po­lit­i­cal par­ties to­gether so that the Maoists could be de­feated. But the mo­ment the Maoists came to power, Bei­jing be­came pro-Maoists.

China-Nepal bon­homie started with the Ti­bet fac­tor. More than 30,000 Ti­betans were liv­ing in Nepal, which China per­ceived as a chal­lenge. Grad­u­ally, with the sup­port of China, the ma­jor­ity of Ti­betans ei­ther mi­grated to In­dia or went to other coun­tries. To­day they can hardly be found in Nepal.

China is try­ing to cre­ate a rail link with Nepal. Dur­ing the eco­nomic block­ade, Oli ap­proached China for criti- cal fuel sup­plies and Bei­jing promptly dis­patched tankers car­ry­ing 1.3 mil­lion litres of petrol. Oli vis­ited China soon af­ter and sealed a num­ber of ma­jor pacts, in­clud­ing a tran­sit agree­ment al­low­ing Nepal ac­cess to Chi­nese sea ports, and Chi­nese loans to build an in­ter­na­tional air­port in the tourist town of Pokhara. Oli’s pet agenda is to have the Qing­hai-Ti­bet rail­way ex­tended all the way to Kath­mandu. China has ini­ti­ated to ex­tend it to Shi­gaste and Kyirong in Ti­bet, close to the Nepal bor­der. Oli had signed an agree­ment dur­ing his first stint as PM to hand over the Bud­hiGan­daki hy­dro­elec­tric project to the Chi­nese com­pany Gezhouba Group Cor­po­ra­tion. Chi­nese strat­egy in Nepal is still Ti­bet-cen­tric and hinges on de­ter­ring In­dia from try­ing to dis­sect Ti­bet from China. Mao had said those Ti­betan plateaus are China’s teeth, pro­tect­ing the tongue from out­side en­e­mies. That is why Nepal be­came a suit­able ally to ful­fil China’s ob­jec­tives.

Cur­rently, In­dia’s at­tempt should be to con­vince the Nepalese peo­ple that it wants a co­he­sive, peace­ful and in­te­grated Nepal. The cul­tural ties be­tween the two coun­tries are civil­i­sa­tional and can­not be dis­man­tled by any third power or po­lit­i­cal regime. PM Modi has rightly routed his third jour­ney to Nepal with cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal ap­peals. Dur­ing his two-day visit, he of­fered prayers at the Janaki tem­ple in Janakpur. He also vis­ited the Muk­ti­nath tem­ple and the In­dian em­bassy’s pen­sion camp in Pokhara. More than 90% of peo­ple in Nepal are Hin­dus. More than 55% live in Terai where Janakpur is among the most im­por­tant places.

In­dia is launch­ing many projects for bet­ter con­nec­tiv­ity with Nepal. In­dia will build a strate­gic rail­way link be­tween Rax­aul in Bi­har and Kath­mandu to fa­cil­i­tate peo­ple to peo­ple con­tact and speed up the move­ment of goods. The two Prime Min­is­ters agreed to con­struct a new elec­tri­fied rail line, which will be fi­nanced by In­dia, con­nect­ing In­dia to Nepal. The stretch of rail­way line from Jayana­gar to Janakpur/Kurtha and from Jog­bani to Bi­rat­na­gar cus­tom yard will be com­pleted by the end of 2018. Three other rail­way projects are in the pipe­line.

Both coun­tries are ex­plor­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of tap­ping the po­ten­tial of in­land wa­ter­ways. This may be a game changer in terms of con­nec­tiv­ity. Nepal is a land­locked coun­try sur­rounded by In­dia from three sides. Most Hi­malayan rivers flow from Ti­bet into Nepal be­fore reach­ing In­dia. The route is dif­fi­cult and ser­pen­tine. If there is fea­si­bil­ity to de­velop in­land river con­nec­tiv­ity, cargo ship­ments can move with ease. In­dia is also plan­ning to start the Arun3 hy­dro-elec­tric project in Sankhuwasabha dis­trict of east­ern Nepal. This project is likely to be com­pleted by 2022. This may mas­sively help Nepal en­hance its hy­dro power po­ten­tial.

More­over, this visit was a re­as­sur­ance to the peo­ple of Nepal that signed pacts are go­ing to be com­pleted on time. The In­dian PM has not raised Nepal’s in­co­heren­cies and con­tra­dic­tions that are still ma­jor po­lit­i­cal fac­tors of its 2015 Con­sti­tu­tion. But Modi’s jour­ney from Janakpur was a re­minder to the Oli gov­ern­ment to ac­com­mo­date the gen­uine de­mands of the Terai peo­ple.

Nev­er­the­less, world pol­i­tics is mov­ing fast. The Korean penin­sula is an ex­am­ple where China’s hege­mony has been put on hold. The US is re­assert­ing it­self in Asia. Look­ing at an In­di­aUS strate­gic part­ner­ship, China is more con­scious of its de­fence tra­jec­tory, which be­gins with Ti­bet. The Khampa re­bel­lion in Ti­bet in the 1960s is still a stark re­minder for China. In­dia can­not suc­ceed merely by par­rot­ing cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal anec­dotes, it has to talk econ­omy. This visit had twin pur­poses. One to re­as­sure Nepal that In­dia is an all weather friend who will stand up for it up in mo­ments of cri­sis and an­other is that the devel­op­ment of Nepal is best achieved with help from In­dia. Prof Satish Ku­mar is Head of Depart­ment of Po­lit­i­cal Science at Cen­tral Univer­sity of Haryana


Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi and his Nepalese coun­ter­part K.P. Oli in Kath­mandu, Nepal on Fri­day.

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