POV: THE OLI GRAIL FOR INDIA
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