Red Star over Nepal irks In­dia

Mail Today - - COMMENT - By Kan­wal Sibal

UN­DER Prime Min­is­ter Khadga Prasad Oli the un­der­cur­rents of In­dia-Nepal ties will re­main trou­bled de­spite his just con­cluded visit to In­dia. In the wake of his elec­toral suc­cess, Oli has been rather up­front pub­licly about his vexed feel­ings to­wards In­dia even when greater dis­cre­tion would have served him and fu­ture ties with In­dia bet­ter. His in­ter­view to a Hong Kong-based news­pa­per af­ter as­sum­ing of­fice con­tained themes that por­tended con­tin­u­ing ten­sions with In­dia, be it his de­ter­mi­na­tion to re­vive the $2.5 bil­lion (`16,200 crore) Budhi Gan­daki project (al­lot­ted to China) that the pre­ced­ing Nepali Congress gov­ern­ment had can­celled, in­creas­ing in­fra­struc­ture con­nec­tiv­ity with China in or­der to lessen Nepal’s reliance on In­dia and up­dat­ing re­la­tions with In­dia “in keep­ing with the times”, in­clud­ing a pos­si­ble “cor­rec­tion” of the long­stand­ing prac­tice of Gurkha re­cruit­ment to serve in the In­dian army, and so on.

China con­nec­tions

He has waxed elo­quent about China ex­tend­ing its rail­way net­work in Ti­bet to Nepal and con­nect­ing it to Nepal’s eastwest rail project, which he felt could “rev­o­lu­tionise China-In­dia trade, with Nepal in the mid­dle”, un­mind­ful that such talk backs China’s strat­egy of en­trench­ing it­self more deeply south of the Hi­malayas and ig­nores In­dia’s se­cu­rity con­cerns.

Oli’s in­ter­views to the In­dian press be­fore his ar­rival were need­lessly com­bat­ive and con­tentious. He in­sisted that Nepal wanted only friend­ship from In­dia, im­ply­ing that In­dia has not been friendly to­wards Nepal. He has harped on In­dia’s in­ter­fer­ence in Nepal’s in­ter­nal af­fairs. He has asked for the re­vi­sion the 1950 treaty that “hurts and pinches the Nepalese peo­ple” be­cause of its un­equal na­ture, mak­ing light of the enor­mous ad­van­tages that Nepal de­rives from it.

His as­sur­ance to his peo­ple be­fore de­part­ing for In­dia that he will not sign any­thing against the in­ter­est of the na­tion, and re­it­er­at­ing it in his in­ter­view to the In­dian press, sug­gested gra­tu­itously that In­dia seeks to pres­sure Nepalese lead­ers to sign agree­ments against their na­tional in­ter­est. He has un­fairly thrown the blame for the non­im­ple­men­ta­tion of the Panchesh­war and Ma­hakali projects ex­clu­sively on In­dia. His vi­sion of Nepal con­nect­ing to the seas through In­dia and China lacks re­al­ism. Be­cause of the con­straints of its own ge­og­ra­phy China wants ac­cess to the In­dian Ocean through Pak­istan and Myan­mar, but here is Oli dream­ing of ac­cess to the Pa­cific Ocean through China!

Oli dis­misses the dan­ger of China’s in­fra­struc­ture build­ing in other coun­tries car­ry­ing the risk of debt en­trap­ment as an In­dian per­cep­tion born of In­dia-China ri­valry, ig­nor­ing that US, Ja­pan, France and the EU have ex­pressed such con­cerns too. He as­serted that he would not make any agree­ment against Nepal’s na­tional in­ter­est. Such over-con­fi­dence in the ca­pac­ity of the Nepalese po­lit­i­cal class, fi­nan­cial ex­perts and bu­reau­cracy in deal­ing with China’s meth­ods and al­lure­ments seems mis­placed, es­pe­cially when the US and Europe are un­able to han­dle China’s “preda­tory eco­nom­ics”. His po­si­tion on hold­ing the SAARC sum­mit dis­re­gards that of In­dia. Oli talks of the bal­loon­ing deficit with In­dia, con­ve­niently over­look­ing the fact that Nepal’s trade deficit with China is 44:1, whereas with In­dia it is 10:1.

Ex­pand­ing ties

In­dia is will­ing to en­gage with Oli, how­ever grat­ing his views may be. Modi has re­port­edly spo­ken to Oli three times since he won the elec­tions. Sushma Swaraj has vis­ited Nepal in Feb­ru­ary with a mes­sage of co­op­er­a­tion. Oli’s de­ci­sion to visit In­dia on his first trip abroad af­ter as­sum­ing of­fice is a pos­i­tive ges­ture, but not too much should be read into it. He could well view this ges­ture as ac­cord­ing him space to ex­pand ties with China. It would seem from the rather bare-boned joint state­ment is­sued on the oc­ca­sion of Oli’s visit that while in pri­vate talks be­tween him and Modi the air may have been cleared and some mu­tual con­fi­dence built, no break­through in re­la­tions has oc­curred.

A new part­ner­ship in agri­cul­ture, a project to con­nect Rax­aul to Kath­mandu by rail, and a new con­nec­tiv­ity with Nepal through in­land wa­ter­ways have been an­nounced. These are long ges­ta­tion projects which when im­ple­mented would tie the two coun­tries and economies closer, but in the im­me­di­ate they will have lim­ited im­pact on the over­all qual­ity of bi­lat­eral re­la­tions or the pro-China pro­cliv­i­ties of the Oli gov­ern­ment.

Po­lit­i­cal of­fen­sive

If Oli es­tab­lishes the rail links with China, our Rax­aul-Kath­mandu rail project will only help him achieve his vi­sion of con­nect­ing China and In­dia with Nepal in the mid­dle. If the Budhi-Gan­daki project is re­vived and In­dia re­fuses to buy power from any project in Nepal not built by In­dian com­pa­nies, we will come un­der at­tack for im­ped­ing Nepal’s de­vel­op­ment.

Some of Oli’s state­ments at the civic re­cep­tion in his hon­our at Delhi show that his po­lit­i­cal of­fen­sive against In­dia con­tin­ues. He spoke of ob­struct­ing the free move­ment of goods, ser­vices and peo­ple as hav­ing no place in to­day’s in­ter­con­nected world, over­look­ing Pak­istan’s de­nial of such move­ment from In­dia to Afghanistan as a SAARC coun­try, as well as China’s ob­struc­tion of Outer Mon­go­lia’s truck traf­fic as punishment for its de­ci­sion to invit­ing the Dalai Lama.

In sum, our re­la­tion­ship with Nepal will re­main dif­fi­cult. We have to man­age it as best as we can be­cause of Nepal’s acute sen­si­tiv­ity over is­sues of sovereignty and deep-seated sus­pi­cion about our in­ter­fer­ence in its in­ter­nal af­fairs. Nepal has played the China card against us for decades ir­re­spec­tive of which po­lit­i­cal party has been in power in Kath­mandu. This will con­tinue.

The writer is for­mer for­eign sec­re­tary. The views ex­pressed are per­sonal

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