Simmer in the geopolitical cauldronFor Indians, the Treaty of 1950 is the prime concern, everything else is optics.
In addition to being the undisputed supremo of the CPN-UML, Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli is also the unquestioned chieftain of the dominant Khas-Arya community. His xenophobic, jingoistic and chauvinistic rhetoric is lapped up by the Nepali media with enthusiastic gusto. It was to burnish his nationalistic image that Sharma Oli chose to launch his election campaign from Darchula on the northwest frontier. The venue for his first election rally seems to have been chosen for its intrinsic propaganda value.
From the controversy over the headwaters of the Mahakali River in the early 1990s through the disagreement over the Kalapani area in the late 1990s to the diplomatic storm over Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura settlements two years ago, Darchula district has remained in the news as a symbol of Nepal's territorial integrity being constantly at risk of being violated by Indian intransigencies.
The importance of symbolism in populist politics cannot be overstated. This time the Oliological trick of inciting nationalistic fervour through the rhetoric of territorial integrity failed to find a receptive audience in Kathmandu or reactive respondents in New Delhi. Nothing shuts up a rabble-rouser as quickly as the disdainful silence of the intended recipients.
The Indian media seldom takes any interest in the affairs of neighbouring countries without a nod from the security establishment. Assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat are more important for the propagandists of the Indian capital than the political drama being staged in Pakistan or the ritualistic game of parliamentary elections being played out in Nepal.
In any case, provincialism of the Hindutva regime has become so acute that New Delhi routinely prioritises even trivial domestic issues over weighty topics of global concern. Perhaps the Indian establishment has decided to let Nepali politicos vent their frustrations without worrying too much about its repercussions upon bilateral relations.
The silence of Nepal's nationalistic media over Indian ambivalence is somewhat more intriguing since India-bashing is the default position of the intelligentsia whenever anything goes wrong. Be it a change of government, vertical split in a political party or deterioration of the air quality, opinion-makers in Kathmandu are always sure that it's all India's fault.
In the normal course, the unfortunate death of a child on the eastern side of The Mahakali River due to sheer negligence of builders on the western bank would have roiled the Nepali media for months. This time, a simple apology has shut their hyperactive keyboards for good. What did the Indian strategists do differently this time? Sent something sweeter or stronger than the customary bottle of whisky to the leading lights of the Nepali press as a Dashain gift?
One possible explanation could be that the Hindutva regime has accepted a secondary role and let Americans handle South Asia for now. The convergence of two of Nepal's three geopolitical "neighbours" often means that the third puppeteer has to go on the defensive. When Washington and Beijing played together in the formulation of the 16-point conspiracy, New Delhi was left wringing its hands in irritation. The Americans seem to have partnered with India to counter increasingly wolf-warrior diplomacy of the Chinese this time.
After emerging as general secretary of the Communist Party of China for a third five-year term from the 20th Party Congress, President Xi Jinping is all set to remain leader for life of the world's second most powerful country. Great power comes with great responsibilities, the greatest of which is to maintain one's greatness.
With the kind of polity he has reinforced at home, President Xi can easily ride roughshod over domestic discontents. Reports of his challenges at home appear to be slightly exaggerated. What he will have to do instead is internationalise Xi Jinping Thought in order to secure a legacy that is at par with those of the Great Helmsman. While Chairman Mao adroitly used powerful leaders of the Cold War era—first Joseph Stalin and then Richard Nixon—to his advantage, President Xi is likely to be the main challenger of the United States' hegemony in Cold War II. The burden of being chief of a group is that it has no friends, only allies or antagonists.
President Xi conceived the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a declaration of China's arrival on the world stage. It was to be a harbinger of change in the existing world order and a direct challenge to the hegemony of the US. A decade isn't long enough to assess the impact of the largest infrastructure project in human history, but it's safe to say that the initial response to the proposal has been slightly underwhelming.
In South Asia, Indians have refused to join the BRI even at the risk of being left out of the Chinese-led free trade group such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which is said to be "arguably the largest free trade agreement in history". The promise of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor being the game changer in transforming Pakistan's energy, transport and other economic infrastructure appears alluring on paper, but Pakistanis have to continue looking Westwards for succour whenever in crisis.
The Chinese were unfairly blamed for the debt-trap diplomacy and subsequent economic crisis leading to the political upheaval in Sri Lanka, but it can still be argued that lending for vainglorious projects of strategic significance but economic unviability, such as Hambantota port, cast a shadow over the intentions of Beijing. The Chinese have given up on the call for unity among communist parties in Nepal, but will they ditch the principles of peripheral diplomacy so easily? No political party in the electoral fray has made even an attempt to wrestle with the question.
It has taken a while, but the Hindutva regime in New Delhi seems to have finally realised that the fraudulent socialists, faux Marxists, phoney Leninists and fake Maoists of Nepal are all essentially Brahminical parties that don't need their sermons to discard the spurious secularism from the constitution. But the hope that the US will use its diplomatic and other forms of soft power to counter China and clear the ground for Indian interests is clearly delusional. Dominant powers harbour hegemonic ambitions. The MCC Compact has acquired parliamentary ratification, but challenges to its implementation are yet to crystallise. The prefix in Indo-Pacific refers to the Indian Ocean rather than India, and Beijing as well as New Delhi knows pretty well that foreign aid, military strategy and the rhetoric of human rights are the intertwined arrows of the US' foreign policy trident.
For Indians, the Treaty of 1950 is the prime concern, everything else is optics. The trade and transit treaties will be up for review in 2023. The report of the Eminent Persons Group is gathering dust in New Delhi. Diplomatic divergence over international issues including, but not limited to, the Ukraine war, implies that Nepal isn't considered a dependable friend in the Indian capital. The diplomatic dilemma is likely to intensify no matter which party leads the next government. The heat is on low for now, but the risk of the geopolitical cauldron coming to a boil after the elections cannot be ruled out.