Where are Nepal-India relations heading?The foreign policy of the Nepal Communist Party government has been a blanket failure.
Nepal-India relations are in an unprecedented gridlock. It belies the much-touted 'uniqueness' in bilateral relations which are believed to have matured through innumerable vicissitudes since time immemorial. But in reality, the two nations still appear incapable of even initiating a meaningful diplomatic dialogue to resolve disputes over commonplace contentions akin to any neighbouring countries in the world; like the current one, the Kalapani-Limpiyadhura border issue. More worrisome is deliberate and prolonged disengagement from both sides and imperviousness to rescue the relations before it is too late. On the contrary, both governments have fuelled mistrust and allowed overtly provocative nationalistic politics to stray from the core contention.
It may be recalled the latest coolness in relations was caused by the inauguration of a motorable road by Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on May 8 in the Lipulekh-Kalapani area in the western Himalaya leading to the Mansarovar pilgrimage site in Tibet. The road passes through territory that historically belonged to Nepal. Earlier, in November last year, India had published its new political map including the territories of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura which Nepal had protested by writing a diplomatic note to New Delhi. In turn, the Nepal government published a new map of Nepal, incorporating these areas, on May 20 and Nepal's Parliament unanimously amended a constitutional schedule on June 18 to engrave the same map in its Coat of Arms.
Though not much different than on several occasions in the past, South Block mandarins very effectively created an alternative Indian narrative on the issue by mobilising its mass media away from the ground reality. The common people in India are now led to believe that Nepal's territorial claim is new and came at the behest of China. Also, Nepal is becoming part of the Chinese strategy of surrounding India from all possible corners. This completely fictitious story sold well to the Indian public as it coincided with the China-India melee at Galwan Valley in the Leh area of the high Himalaya that occurred in the same month of May and later led to a near warlike provocation from both sides.
Two other Indian approaches are also unwaveringly at play. First, New Delhi-based think tanks and several former Indian ambassadors to Nepal, through their frequent op-ed write-ups, are completely brushing aside the idea that the Kalapani-Limpiyadhura area is at least a disputed territory, but unequivocally asserting that it is under Indian sovereign control. The obvious implicit connotation to Indian diplomacy is that the issue does not warrant immediate initiation of dialogue between the two countries. Two, the Indian establishment has expressed total disinterest in sitting for dialogue with the clear objective of exhausting Nepal to desperation. There are also extreme suggestions that the government of India should not even entertain official correspondence from Nepal bearing the Coat of Arms with the new Nepali map in it.
In general, the foreign policy of the Nepal Communist Party government has been a blanket failure. It has also failed to maintain a diplomatic balance between both its powerful neighbours, China and India. Except lamenting about India's non-response to frequent requests for talks, Nepal has virtually failed to convince India to initiate the foreign secretary-level dialogue series as agreed during the first official Nepal visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in August 2014. This was the mechanism envisaged to resolve all forms of differences, old and new.
But, interestingly, Nepal's foreign policy establishment appears more amused than concerned by the deteriorating relations with India. It is primarily because the anti-Indian rhetoric, including the allegation by Prime Minister KP Oli himself that India is plotting to oust him from power, is proving adequate to fuel the ruling faction's ultra-nationalistic politics. Oli has tried to monopolise the credit for incorporating the new map in the Coat of Arms while real success in bringing the disputed land under Nepal's tenure still practically looks like an extremely arduous task.
Although definitely not to the extent and dimension as portrayed or perceived in the Indian media, the China factor certainly has lately become overarching in Nepali politics. China with its growing economic and strategic clout in international fora has clearly departed from its traditional, what was known as 'quiet and on interfering diplomacy', towards Nepal. China now has chosen to 'facilitate' Nepal's communist politics in a modus operandi comparable to what India chose to employ until the recent past. Recent bids by the Chinese ambassador in Kathmandu to save the ruling party from the brink of a vertical split is causing a lot of unease and indirectly vindicates the Indian claim of 'Nepal falling into Chinese folds'. Party-to-party level engagement between the ruling Nepal Communist Party and the Communist Party of China has tremendously enhanced. But to understand this as Nepal's long-term foreign policy mainstay would be another mistake.
What is at stake?
Neither party is likely to gain from the current deadlock in Nepal-India relations. The present resigned approaches evident on both sides does not contribute to elevating the age-old relations from, perceivably, now at their lowest point in history. If the Indian establishment is testing its strategy of making Nepal realise the putative 'small country predicament' in diplomacy, it will have a greater unforeseen cost. The nature and outcome of the contentious issues will take their own course, but the initiation of dialogue is indispensable in the interest of both countries.
As all democratic countries of the world cease to engage meaningfully with Nepal, the ultimate victim is sure to be Nepal's democracy itself. India's hesitation to accept its own callousness in failing in its Nepal policy in this particular regard deserves a nuanced review. Right from September 2015, when Nepal promulgated its new constitution through an overwhelming majority of the Constituent Assembly, India refused to acknowledge this democratic outcome. Even now, to dismiss the unanimous adoption of Nepal's new map by the federal Parliament undermines the core value of parliamentary democracy.
It must be noted here that the Tarai-based parties of Nepal, that India always considered closer political forces than any other political outfits, also voted in favour of the constitutional amendment to incorporate the altered map. They didn't do it without a valid reason, which India fails to recognise. India's lost confidence in all forces in Nepal, including those who advocate for a balance between the two neighbours, certainly will not help India either.
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