It sets a challenge for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of a close-knit South Asia based on cooperative bilateral ties between India and all its neighbours--setting Indian diplomacy the task of crafting strategy anew to deal with the problem, said analysts.
It also presents India’s strategic rival, China, with an opportunity to further strengthen its position in Nepal, they added.
The nod from the upper house, the National Assembly or the Rashtriya Sabha, is seen as a formality after the lower house, the House of Representatives or Pratinidhi Sabha, on Saturday passed the constitution amendment bill to update the country’s map with an overwhelming vote of 258 members present in the house of 275.
The new map, made public last month, shows three areas, which India claims as part of its territory, within Nepal’s borders. These are Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura and Kalapani, which India claims are part of Uttarakhand. India’s reaction was expectedly sharp, deeming the move as “not based on historical fact or evidence" and as “untenable."
“It is also violative of our current understanding to hold talks on outstanding boundary issues," said Anurag Srivastava, spokesperson for the Indian foreign ministry.
According to two people familiar with the matter, New Delhi had offered talks at the foreign secretary level to resolve the matter before the bill was introduced in Nepal's parliament. But Kathmandu, though publicly said it had sought dialogue with India on the matter, ignored the offer of discussions and went ahead with changes to its map.
Speculation is rife that Nepalese Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli did this to strengthen his own position domestically, getting his party colleagues, who had differences with him, to close ranks behind him. News reports last month said Chinese ambassador to Nepal, Hou Yanqi, brokered peace between Oli and his party colleagues including main challenger Pushpa Kamal Dahal.
On the path forward, Constantino Xavier, analyst with the New Delhi chapter of the Washington based Brookings’ think tank, “India should have a thick skin and ignore these symbolic amendments to maps and Nepali nationalist rhetoric."
“India will continue to remain in control of the disputed territories," he said – a view shared by former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal.
Given that the situation has blown up politically, New Delhi “should try to de-escalate through diplomatic engagement. The status quo won't change, in any case, even Kathmandu knows that," Xavier said. “It is more of a reminder for India that high-level political engagement between Modi and Oli and other neighbourhood leaders is important but not sufficient," he said.
“It is important to keep neighbours engaged in diplomatic dialogues, respond to their concerns. For this, India must strengthen its diplomatic and economic capacity to respond to growing demands from neighbours, especially as China offers a growing alternative," Xavier added.
According to former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, “Nepal has introduced a source of permanent friction in bilateral ties through its cartographic aggression." India’s ties with Nepal are based on close people to people ties with many dimensions and not ideology, Sibal pointed out in an apparent reference to the common ideology shared by the current government of Nepal and China. China, he said, has entrenched itself deeply in Nepal in its avatar as the largest investor and aid giver besides its willingness to buy off Nepal’s ruling elite.
“China’s challenge to India in Nepal is real and substantial," Sibal said.
For India, the way forward would be to take Nepal along in Prime Minister Modi’s vision of a prosperous South Asia, he said. Nepal will remain part of India’s plans to engage BIMSTEC – a grouping of countries that straddles South and Southeast Asia -- that New Delhi sees as an alternative to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation or SAARC which has been hobbled by tensions between India and Pakistan. Despite Nepal’s actions," it will not be in India’s interests to isolate Nepal," he added.