India and Nepal may be looking to build a relationship of equality, trust and mutual benefit, but China is an x-factor in a rapidly-changing region, Udayan Das writes.
During the recent visit to India by Nepalese Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli, New Delhi and Kathmandu expressed political will to reset their ties on equality, mutual trust and benefit.
Oli signed three new agreements with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi during the visit, expanding railway linkages, and increasing connectivity through inland waterways and agriculture. With new projects on board and old ones awaiting completion, amidst a host of contentious issues, relations between India and Nepal need deft decision-making at all three levels – the personal, the state and the regional.
Riding on a healthy mandate at home which was fed by anti-Indian rhetoric, Oli has largely focused on economic cooperation with India during his visit. While demanding friendship from India, Oli has, however, been vocal about long-standing issues such as the trade imbalance between the two countries, a review of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, and delivery delays of the projects earlier undertaken.
While Oli’s economic agenda pushes his vision of “Samruddha Nepal, Sukhi Nepal” (Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepal), future relations with India will depend on his foreign policy stance.
Oli wants to balance relations by reaching out to both India and China, but his over-reliance on his northern neighbour has earned him a pro-China tag. This tag, however, has enabled him to diversify Nepal’s foreign relations, while offering unflinching rhetoric of nationalist sovereignty towards New Delhi.
Oli’s forthcoming visit to Beijing will be watched closely as the talks of reviving the Budhi Gandaki Project have already had New Delhi emphasise its red lines. On the other hand, his Indian counterpart has faced a fluctuation in popularity within a span of three years from his Nepal visits in 2014 to the roaring anti-Indian sentiments during the alleged blockade. Modi’s recalibration of the neighbourhood first policy for the Himalayan state is waiting to be noticed.
Bilaterally, the reset has moved the trajectory of India-Nepal relations from a special relationship to also a transactional one that focuses on deliverables.
New Delhi needs to look to the past in order to move ahead with Nepal and establish a relationship which is based on sovereign equality. It must take Nepal’s apprehensions into consideration and provide it enough breathing space to build on its nascent democratic order. This would require India to view Nepal beyond the realms of security and an erstwhile component of its sphere of influence.
More than simply countering anti-India sentiment, New Delhi must first understand the cause of the changing Nepali attitudes in the first place. Given the advantages of geography, cultural linkages and history, India’s soft-handedness can be vital. Once New Delhi is confident that Nepal’s nationalism need not be anti-Indian and its borders, though open, are secure, India and Nepal can really look forward to establishing a durable partnership across the spectrum. Water and borders are two of the most important issues that can serve as a re-starting point in bilateral relations.
When it comes to the regional dimension, China has become a major factor in current India-Nepal relations.
New Delhi’s problem here is two-fold. First, it sees China as a hegemonic power eating into its strategic space and making inroads in South Asia. Second, its investments and linking of the Belt and Road Initiative is equipping Kathmandu to play the China card.
This, in turn, is viewed by Nepal as an opportunity to balance India and do away with its dependency on its Southern neighbour by exploring new areas of cooperation. Apprehensive of Chinese investments in Nepal, India has increased the foreign aid budget towards Kathmandu.
Yet at a regional level, India and Nepal’s visions seem to be at odds. Oli is promoting the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) alongside other sub-regional forums, while India is dismissing SAARC due to its differences with Pakistan. New Delhi was particularly unhappy when China pushed for SAARC membership through Nepal in the 2014 summit.
China’s eagerness to establish inroads in South Asia, Nepal’s urge to diversify relations, and India’s paranoia of China at its doorstep all work to make the geopolitics of the region a point of contention between India and Nepal.
Foreign policy is bound to go through periods of continuity and change. As such, India-Nepal relations must also depend on a balance of immediate and long-term developments. While the delivery of the projects are dependent on long-term variables, unpredictable exchanges between the two states, with China as an x-factor, may have an immediate impact on the bilateral relations.
Keeping Nepal’s nascent constitutional order and an evolving polity in mind, India would do well as a friend to keep itself out of Nepal’s internal matters, but not at the cost of being indifferent to its needs.