POV: THE OLI GRAIL FOR IN­DIA

India Today - - INSIDE - By K.V. Ra­jan The author is In­dia’s former am­bas­sador to Nepal

In Septem­ber 2015, the main po­lit­i­cal par­ties in Nepal de­clined to heed In­dia’s ad­vice to de­lay the pro­mul­ga­tion of a Con­sti­tu­tion that went back on ear­lier com­mit­ments to the Mad­he­sis on the Nepal-In­dia bor­der, which In­dia felt could pose a threat to Nepal’s sta­bil­ity. A ‘block­ade’ of sorts en­sued for 134 days, pre­vent­ing en­try of es­sen­tial goods into Nepal. This caused huge suf­fer­ing and in­con­ve­nience, com­ing as it did shortly af­ter the dev­as­tat­ing earth­quake in April that year. Nepali opin­ion was out­raged at In­dia’s ‘in­ter­fer­ence’. Ea­ger to play the China card in or­der to ex­tract more from In­dia, K. P. Sharma Oli and other po­lit­i­cal lead­ers fu­elled na­tion­al­is­tic yearn­ings, called for di­lut­ing de­pen­dence on In­dia, and of­fered China an “equal” re­la­tion­ship—an op­por­tu­nity Bei­jing glee­fully seized.

Oli, then head­ing a coali­tion with the Maoists, signed a trade and tran­sit treaty with China—sim­i­lar to the one with In­dia. He was top­pled shortly there­after, with sus­pected help from In­dia. The anti-In­dia wave per­sisted. In the elec­tions, the left­ist UML/ Maoist al­liance won with a three-fourths ma­jor­ity in Par­lia­ment and it is now com­fort­ably in power in six of the seven provinces formed in the new fed­eral struc­ture.

All this came as a huge shock for In­dia. In an un­usual step, In­dia sent for­eign min­is­ter Sushma Swaraj to Kath­mandu to sig­nal In­dia’s good­will for Oli even be­fore the lat­ter had been sworn in as the new prime min­is­ter.

Oli’s just-con­cluded visit to In­dia—his first trip abroad af­ter as­sum­ing the prime min­is­ter’s of­fice for the sec­ond time—was be­ing watched keenly, with ob­servers won­der­ing whether or not it would clear the deep mis­trust that had cast a shadow over In­dia-Nepal ties in re­cent times.

To the credit of Oli and Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi, the visit went off smoothly. Both sides re­frained from rak­ing up past mis­un­der­stand­ings, and, in­stead, em­pha­sised the im­mense po­ten­tial of bi­lat­eral co­op­er­a­tion to cre­ate a bet­ter fu­ture for their people. In a mas­ter­stroke in­tended to make a ma­jor im­pact on the “land­locked” psy­che of Nepal, In­dia an­nounced that it would fi­nance the con­struc­tion of a rail­way track between Rax­aul in Bi­har and Kath­mandu and work on in­land water­ways con­nect­ing Bi­har to Nepal. A po­ten­tially im­por­tant mem­o­ran­dum of un­der­stand­ing was also signed on co­op­er­a­tion in agri­cul­ture. Dif­fi­cult is­sues like con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments to ac­com­mo­date the Mad­he­sis, the 1950 Treaty and Nepal’s sup­port for China’s Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive (BRI) were ap­par­ently not dis­cussed.

Oli has been call­ing for a ma­jor ex­pan­sion of eco­nomic links with In­dia, in con­trast to his ear­lier stance. De­vel­op­ment, not se­cu­rity as was the case un­til now, is the new mantra driv­ing In­dia-Nepal ties. In his in­ter­ac­tion with In­dian busi­ness lead­ers, he called for in­vest­ments in hy­dropower, tourism, agri­cul­ture, SMEs and ex­port-ori­ented in­dus­tries, and also promised favourable treat­ment to In­dian in­vestors.

Dur­ing his In­dia visit Oli has been very re­laxed in as­sert­ing Nepal’s right to strengthen ties with China, in­sist­ing that this will never be aimed against In­dian in­ter­ests. Oli will prob­a­bly visit China in the near fu­ture and fresh an­nounce­ments will surely be made then which may set the alarm bells ring­ing in New Delhi.

Un­less some­thing to­tally un­fore­seen hap­pens, Oli will be PM for the next few years. And Nepal will en­joy po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity af­ter a very long gap. In­dia’s hope will be that while Oli has gained the rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing anti-In­dia and pro-China, his po­lit­i­cal shrewd­ness and the pos­i­tive af­ter­ef­fects of the Delhi visit will help con­tain China’s grow­ing in­flu­ence in Nepal.

De­vel­op­ment, not se­cu­rity as was the case un­til now, is the new mantra driv­ing In­dia-Nepal ties. In­dia hopes the pos­i­tive af­ter­ef­fects of Oli’s Delhi visit will help con­tain China’s in­flu­ence in Nepal

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