Strategy for survivalNepal’s latest election results do not mean dismay for New Delhi or joy for Beijing
Kamal Dev Bhattarai
Political parties rarely talk about foreign policy in their election campaigns. However, the manifestos of the Nepali Congress (NC) and the CPN-UML issued before the House of Representatives and Provincial Assembly elections have discussed in detail their foreign policy priorities.
The NC’s manifesto said, “Nepal’s importance has increased in the context of the rise of India and China as powerful countries in the 21st century. Given its geographical location and importance, Nepal has drawn a lot of attention in the foreign policies of both countries. The Nepali Congress is of the view that credible, friendly and balanced relations and cooperation with both countries should be a top priority of Nepal’s foreign policy.”
Likewise, the manifesto of the left alliance said, “Friendly relations shall be maintained with neighbouring countries on the basis of Panchsheel, UN Charter and non-aligned principles protecting national interest, sovereignty and independence. An independent policy will be adopted which discards foreign interference in the internal affairs of the country. The tendency to surrender to foreign forces will be discouraged. All unequal treaties and agreements signed with India including the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship will be reviewed and replaced on the basis of necessity and national interest. Diplomatic efforts will be applied to resolve border related problems and the management of border points.”
There are no major differences between the two manifestos with regard to the policy towards India and China. As the left alliance is poised to form a new government with a near two-thirds majority in the 275-member House of Representatives (HoR), there is much curiosity about how it will conduct its foreign policy, particularly towards India. The Indian media believes Chinese influence will further increase in Nepal. There is no doubt that Beijing is upbeat with the left alliance’s election victory as it is favourable to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is partially reflected in China’s state-owned media.
Nothing but media hype
Nepal-India relations are not as strained as painted by the Indian media. There has been considerable rapprochement since KP Sharma Oli visited India in 2016 as the prime minister, just after the end of the Indian blockade. During that visit, Oli had insisted on two things. One, India must welcome Nepal’s constitution, and this should be mentioned in a joint press statement. Two, the issue of the 1950 treaty must be included in the press statement. Due to differences between the two sides, there was no joint press statement. Nepal’s internal political situation and India’s approach to its internal political affairs have now changed greatly. The southern neighbour has congratulated Nepal for successfully holding the local elections which is a virtual endorsement of the constitution. The issue of constitutional amendment is alive, but it is not a priority for either Kathmandu or New Delhi.
A different India
India did not make any public comments during the HoR and Provincial Assembly elections. The Indian political leadership has realised that interference in Nepal’s internal affairs would be counterproductive. Indian ambassador to Nepal Manjeev Singh Puri is not as active in political circles like his predecessors. As far as the 1950 treaty is concerned, Nepal and India have agreed to review and replace it if needed. To this end, an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) has been formed which agrees that bilateral relations cannot move ahead under the framework of the 1950 treaty. Chances of the treaty being amended are very slim, but it is unlikely to emerge as a major issue.
The framework of Nepal’s policy towards India and China is already in place, and there won’t be radical change irrespective of whichever party forms the government.
Nepal wants balanced relations with both Asian giants with a greater focus on economic diplomacy. Nepal wants investment and economic cooperation from both countries in its drive towards peace, stability and prosperity.
Successive governments in Kathmandu have always been careful about addressing the genuine security interests of both countries. Of late, New Delhi is more concerned about growing Chinese influence in Nepal. Delhi is not happy with Nepal’s decision to sign the BRI framework. But the Indian establishment knows well that Chinese influence cannot be prevented, and that it will further increase in the future. Nepal cannot ignore the BRI. At the same time, Nepal cannot ignore its ties with India. This is the reality of Nepal’s foreign policy. The speed may fluctuate, but no prime minister in Kathmandu can avoid the BRI. The BRI framework agreement was signed last May when CPN (Maoist Centre) Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal was prime minister. The initial decision on the BRI was taken in 2014 when the then NC president Sushil Koirala was prime minister. Successive prime ministers including Oli have followed it up.
India is implementing several development projects in Nepal, and more are in the pipeline, including railways. The bureaucracy has been exploring possible projects under the BRI which the incoming government can sign. India should not be concerned by the election results in Nepal. There are obvious reasons why Nepal-India relations should remain cordial, and why both countries cannot afford to damage them.
India must concentrate on the early completion of long-pending development projects signed with Nepal. In substance, Oli’s policy towards India and China will not be much different from that of previous governments. But there will be some progress on BRI projects. If Oli becomes the prime minister, he will obviously work hard to maintain a balanced policy towards India and China to fulfil the elections promises of development and prosperity. Successive governments have had no choice but to maintain balanced and cordial relations with both countries, and it will likely be no different for the new government. So Nepal’s election results do not mean dismay for Delhi or joy for Beijing.