Dahal’s India visit: A postscriptMismatch of more reliance on India and people’s desire to break free of its embrace could turn ugly.
Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s India visit was expected to yield little, to start with. It was seen as being no more than the ritual first stop of a newly installed Nepali head of government.
As the leader of a shaky coalition and someone marked as “China’s man”, New Delhi received him with scepticism. Dahal's meeting with a top Communist Party of China delegate on the day he was to fly to India did not help his cause. That said, he has over the years made every effort to mend fences with the “expansionist power” he once denounced with abandon.
The former commander of the Maoist guerrillas learned the importance of keeping New Delhi on the right side the hard way.
Drunk on a thumping electoral victory in the 2008 Constituent Assembly elections, Dahal as prime minister was in a mood to junk the hoary past. He started cultivating China openly. The “Fierce One” then tried to sack a sitting army chief who turned the tables on him with India’s backing.
Booted out after just nine months in office, Dahal went back to doing what he knew best since the insurgency days: Endlessly fulminate against India’s evils.
But it slowly dawned on him that while anti-India posturing was a foolproof electoral strategy in Nepal, when it came to ruling the Himalayan country for any length of time, India’s backing was a must. He gulped down his gigantic ego and started wooing Delhi power brokers, repeatedly jetting abroad to meet Indian bureaucrats and spooks on the sly, telling them what they wanted to hear. The once champion of a secular republic even took to visiting temples to display his Hindu piety.
He continues to try. Dahal has virtually gifted nearly all of Nepal’s vital power projects to the southern neighbour. Just hours before his New Delhi flight, the President gave his stamp of approval to the long-pending Citizenship Bill, again with a nod to the south.
As Ajaya Bhadra Khanal foresaw in his recent Ukaalo commentary, Nepal has become more India-dependent following Dahal's India visit. The challenge for Nepal, Khanal says, is to turn this state of “dependence” into “inter-dependence”. Never again should it find itself in a position where it has to face another blackmail in the form of a blockade.
Now that Dahal is back from India, preparations will start for his official China sojourn. A long list of high-sounding bilateral projects will be lined up to flaunt his nationalist credentials. What he is likely to discover in China (as he must also have done in India) is that engagements with India and China are increasingly mutually exclusive. It is getting harder to please them both at the same time.
The recent trip was no tea party for the three-time prime minister. Even after bending over backwards to humour the Indians, the Maoist supremo could not extract what he wanted from them. Nepal’s top priority was an additional high-altitude air entry route, preferably over Bhairahawa in western Nepal. It wasn’t meant to be, even though such a route has been under discussion for at least a decade.
India says it is a technical and sensitive matter involving defence forces and will thus take time to resolve. That does not sound credible. Modi, arguably the most powerful prime minister in India’s history, can easily get the armed forces to concede an additional air route to a country that poses no strategic or military threat to India.
The prime minister also spoke of a possible land swap with India, but only in the vaguest terms. Yet it is inconceivable that all of Nepal’s major political forces will agree to give up the country’s claim on the Kalapani area. India's conceding any part of its geopolitically sensitive “chicken’s neck” Siliguri corridor is even harder to imagine.
The Pancheshwar Multipurpose Project too continues to drag on, and the latest promise of tangible progress in three months appears doubtful.
On energy trade, India agreed to a 10-year deal when Nepal was pressing for a 25-year agreement. There was also nothing in terms of easing access for Nepali goods into the Indian market to help the country cut its enormous trade deficit.
One definite achievement was the agreement to supply power to Bangladesh via India, albeit just a symbolic 40 megawatts at first.
All in all, following his India trip, Dahal has made Nepal more dependent on India—on trade, transit and even payment systems.
India wants Nepal to make a clear break with China. It won’t buy any Nepali electricity produced with Beijing’s help. It won’t even provide an air route to allow airports built with Chinese assistance to operate. There is now near unanimity among Indian geopolitical thinkers that India and China are fighting a zero-sum game in South Asia.
Nepal’s interest is in maintaining a level of balance with its two neighbours while also keeping its links to the United States and other Western countries strong. What plan does the Dahal government have for this, one wonders.
World beyond India
Nepal-India relations are at an inflection point. Writing for Kantipur last week, CK Lal talked of how rich Nepalis are no longer wooed by the old charms of Kashi and Kolkata; they rather have their eyes set farther afield on Sydney and New York. Meanwhile, for the working classes, who once went to Punjab and Assam to ply their trade, the new destination of choice is the Middle East. So even as Nepal’s quantum of engagement with India is growing, common Nepalis feel less and less connected to their southern neighbour.
This mismatch between the hard reality of Nepal’s increasing reliance on India and the common people’s desire to break free of the close embrace of the traditional “big brother” could easily morph into another anti-India hysteria at the slightest provocation—and the upshot could be far worse than the 2015-16 blockade.
Unfortunately, none of the current set of leaders has shown the kind of statesmanship that will be needed to successfully navigate Nepal’s convoluted geopolitics in the days ahead. The only other way out of this quagmire is for at least the country’s major political forces to devise a common foreign policy framework in line with Nepal’s national interest.
With such a framework in place, Nepal will be a more trustworthy international actor. It will also free our leaders of the compulsion to either appease or demonise foreign actors to consolidate their domestic constituencies. The chances of vital agreements with New Delhi or Beijing being actually implemented will shoot up too.