Run­ning in cir­cles around over­lap­ping spheres


Who would've re­ally thought the In­dian and Chi­nese pres­i­dents one day would be vy­ing with each other so fever­ishly to visit Nepal first. Okay, nei­ther Pranab Mukher­jee nor Xi Jin­ping seems that des­per­ate. But you get the drift. Watch for what is said as well as what is not. The In­di­ans never felt the need to deny that K.P. Oli had to exit Baluwatar be­cause he cov­eted that north­ern al­liance a bit too much for his own good. Their sense of tri­umphal­ism says it all. When Nepal flashed the ‘ China card' in the past, the In­di­ans could eas­ily mock the palace for in­dulging in such a bla­tant an­tipeo­ple ploy. The man­darins up north weren't ex­actly help­ful, ei­ther. When the In­di­ans locked Nepal in that eco­nomic stran­gle­hold in 1989-1990 for hav­ing bought an­ti­air­craft guns from China, lost in the story was the fact that Bei­jing had tempted us with lu­cra­tive prices. When the Pan­chayat sys­tem col­lapsed as a re­sult, the Chi­nese joined the cho­rus de­nounc­ing how de­spi­ca­ble the party­less sys­tem was. Af­ter the royal takeover of Fe­bru­ary 2005, Bei­jing was no doubt the prin­ci­pal ex­ter­nal ben­e­fi­ciary. Tight­en­ing the noose on Ti­betan ex­iles, the palace-led govern­ment sought to cor­rect Nepal's south­ern and west­ern drift the Chi­nese had be­gun grum­bling about in pub­lic. Bei­jing got ob­server sta­tus in the South Asian As­so­ci­a­tion for Re­gional Co­op­er­a­tion. What did the Nepali govern­ment that had so stren­u­ously pushed China's case get? Zero, zip, zilch, nada. Once the royal govern­ment col­lapsed, the Chi­nese swiftly changed their am­bas­sador so that he could be the first for­eign en­voy to present cre­den­tials to the prime min­is­ter, who was of­fi­ci­at­ing as head of state. Repub­li­can Nepal didn't fare much bet­ter. When Pushpa Ka­mal Da­hal as prime min­is­ter at­tempted to pub­licly re­con­fig­ure Nepal geopo­lit­i­cal lo­cus, the In­di­ans didn't seem too both­ered. The seven par­ties ar­rayed against the monar­chy were still avail­able to tame the Maoists. Af­ter Da­hal's de­par­ture from Singha Dar­bar, Bei­jing seemed to cul­ti­vate the hard­lin­ers in the Maoists, even­tu­ally em­bold­en­ing them to break away. Oli's ‘China card', how­ever, proved to be dif­fer­ent. From the out­set, it re­minded the In­di­ans that the game had two play­ers. Bei­jing seemed anx­ious to demon­strate that this time, it meant busi­ness. Sure, things are still pro forma on the Sino-Nepali front. The le­gacy of dis­trust on both sides may not be at the level of Nepal-In­dia re­la­tions in scope as well as in pub­lic ran­cor. But sus­pi­cions and skep­ti­cism do per­sist. Yet the agree­ments the two gov­ern­ments signed dur­ing Oli's visit to Bei­jing do pro­vide the ba­sis for con­crete ac­tion on mean­ing­ful co­op­er­a­tion in the event of req­ui­site po­lit­i­cal com­mit­ment. It is Xi's visit to Nepal ev­ery­body's talk­ing about, not Pres­i­dent Bidya Bhan­dari's to China. Thus, the im­me­di­ate task for the In­di­ans is to scut­tle a Xi visit, at least be­fore Mukher­jee makes a trip, in terms of the bat­tle of per­cep­tions. This time, Prime Min­is­ter Pushpa Ka­mal Da­hal is not in two minds about which neigh­bor to visit first. But he still has to fig­ure out which neigh­bor­ing leader to host first. As for Nepalis, they un­der­stand bet­ter why they are feel­ing the squeeze. The ti­tle of be­ing the last trib­u­tary to the Mid­dle King­dom comes with a price, es­pe­cially when the suc­ces­sor regime draws in­spi­ra­tion from the same im­pe­rial am­bi­tions. On the other side, the In­di­ans see Nepal as the un­fin­ished busi­ness of in­de­pen­dence. Th­ese com­pet­ing claims of sphere of in­flu­ence aren't go­ing to be re­solved any time soon. So how's this for a deal? Let Mukher­jee and Xi alight the same air­craft, to­gether, hand in hand, ei­ther be­fore or af­ter the Goa BRICS sum­mit in Oc­to­ber. The least we can do is pro­vide the plane.

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