The India-Nepal relationship has seen a number of setbacks in recent times. The one which has caused the biggest stir is the latest: Nepalese Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli’s decision to not let the country’s army participate in the joint military drill of the Bimstec (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) member-states that is currently underway in Pune. The decision to pull out was taken by Oli at the eleventh hour, just before the Nepalese armed forces personnel were about to leave for Pune last week. In another widely noted development, the government in Kathmandu has concluded an agreement with China to gain access to Chinese ports, including Tianjin, Shenzhen, Lianyungang and Zhanjiang. As Reuters reported, Nepalese goods will also have access to dry ports at Lanzhou, Lhasa and Xigatse.
A number of people have seen these developments as Nepal’s legitimate response to India’s economic blockade of the land-locked nation in 2015-16. It is true that the blockade backfired on India. Not only was there a backlash against New Delhi in Nepal’s hilly areas, which was skilfully exploited by Oli, but India also abandoned the blockade without achieving the objectives it aimed at—the Madhesis, Tharus and Janjatis receiving their due rights in the Nepalese constitution. Nepal’s desire to get access to alternative ports is, therefore, eminently understandable. But what is not is its abrupt withdrawal from the Bimstec military exercise causing significant diplomatic embarrassment for India, which is trying to project the regional grouping as an alternative to South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc)—the latter has Pakistan as one of its members.
The blockade does not entirely explain Oli’s willingness to unnecessarily provoke India. While he will have alternative trade routes, those will not be competitive against the Kolkata port given the geography, distance and cost involved in sending goods via Chinese ports. Moreover, China cannot substitute for India in Nepal. India has an open border with Nepal and Nepalese citizens work in India, marry Indians and serve in the Indian Army. In the light of all these factors, Oli’s decisions seems to be a straight pick from Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen’s playbook. Even as Oli scuttled Nepal’s participation in the Pune military exercise, the Nepalese army is preparing to leave for a 12-day military exercise with China in Chengdu later this month. Similarly, Yameen, who doesn’t hesitate to allow Chinese warships to dock in Malé, had earlier asked India to take back its naval helicopters—New Delhi’s gift to the atoll nation.
After assuming charge as Nepal’s prime minister for a second term in February, Oli invited the then Pakistani prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi for the first high-level visit. Shortly after, the Pakistani army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa was in the Maldives and paid a visit to Yameen. It is not a coincidence that Oli has also been batting for a revival of Saarc, knowing fully well of India’s discomfort with Pakistan’s obstructionism in the South Asia’s regional forum.
The situation in the Maldives demanded an Indian intervention to cut Yameen’s dictatorial regime to size. However, India could not move beyond making generalized, moralistic statements. This newspaper had warned that if Yameen was allowed to go scot-free after harming India’s interests, there will be more such leaders in South Asia. Now, New Delhi is dealing with an awkward situation in Nepal and cannot do anything beyond conveying its displeasure privately to Kathmandu. This will achieve nothing, just like issuing platitudinous statements yielded nothing in the Maldives.
India needs to develop sharper instruments to coerce hostile leadership in the neighbourhood. The blockade was a blunt instrument which caused substantial harm to the common people. The recent engagement with Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Nepal’s former prime minister and current ally of Oli, is a step in the right direction. The ascent of Oli to power earlier this year was possible because Dahal decided to throw his weight behind an alliance brokered by Beijing. There is a possibility that an increasingly authoritarian Oli will not fulfil his promises to Dahal and the alliance may fall apart. India would do well to remain plugged in and keep Dahal engaged.
India should also up its game on delivery of infrastructure projects in neighbouring countries. China’s appeal has a lot to do with its efficient completion of projects. The early noises from Washington and New Delhi on potential cooperation on projects in South Asian countries is welcome.
While there are lessons for India, there are warnings for Nepal too. It is alright to play the China card with India and the India card with China—almost all Indian neighbours indulge in similar practices. But Oli may end up taking his country in a very different direction with his unnecessary provocations to New Delhi. No country has come out healthier after a tight embrace with Beijing. Oli would do well to look at examples ranging from Malaysia to Sri Lanka, and even Pakistan right now. Nepal’s exports through Chinese ports will never materialize to the extent that its current account will be worsened by infusion of Chinese goods and capital. Whether or not Oli is in power at the time, the people of Nepal should be worried because the music will eventually stop, leaving the country’s economy in a terrible shape.
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