Regaining hearts and minds of the Nepalese

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Regaining hearts and minds of the Nepalese

Though post-Doklam, China has said it welcomes strong India-Nepal relations, New Delhi has to keep its one-time blue eyed boy, KP Oli, on the right side

The pomp and pageantry of Rashtrapati Bhavan accorded, pleasantries exchanged, and all good things said, made four-time Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s visit to India last month ‘successful’ at a time when there is stiff competition in Nepal between India and China: That installed in Kathmandu, is a Government of its choice. Beijing, a new entrant in this game, is holding its cards close to its chest. Old hand India brags about ‘special relations’ and ‘roti-beti rishta’ while China bags all the goodwill and developmental contracts.

At the Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu, on a disingenuous contraption raised four feet above the tarmac, Indian security officials conduct ladder-point frisking of passengers to uphold Nepal’s sovereignty as it is not on its soil. This love-hate relationship is the epitome of post-andolan Nepal-India ties.

For a Nepali potential and incumbent Prime Minister, it is essential that he gets invited to India on a visit and much is made of him. Many feign maladies to consult Indian leaders ostensibly on a medical check up. The Chinese do it more brashly, inviting their favourites like star performer, former Prime Minister KP Oli of the Unified Marxist-Leninist  (UML). But Deuba, being a dyed in the wool, pro-India, pro-West, Nepali Congress leader, has never been invited to China in the post-andolan period.

The Chinese are furious that last year, at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-leaning India Foundation conclave at Goa, Deuba shared the dais with Lobsang Sangay, Prime Minister of the Tibetan Government in exile. Former Prime Minister Sushil Koirala was the only Prime Minister from the Nepali Congress who was not invited on a state visit to India. He died disappointed but was seen by New Delhi to be doing Beijing’s bidding.

Last month, India Foundation organised its usual civic reception for Deuba at the Delhi’s grand Imperial Hotel, festooned with portraits of British and Indian royalty and the Charge of the Light Brigade, similar to the Ranas’ splendour and memorabilia seen at Kathmandu’s Yak and Yeti hotel.

While welcoming Deuba, Food and Consumer Affairs Minister Ram Vilas Paswan from Bihar waxed eloquent on roti-beti but also inadvertently touched a raw nerve, mentioning China’s high-handedness in Tibet. This prompted an impromptu comment by Deuba in his address. He said, “We have excellent relations with China and don’t face problems from them”. This is straight out of Nepal’s history books, an 18h century epistle on diplomacy from Nepal’s founder, King Prithvinarayan Shah, that Nepal, being a yam between two boulders, must

remain equidistant.

When Deuba returned to his seat after reading out his speech, Maoist party coalition partner and Foreign Minister KB Mahara apparently commended him on the pithy China interjection. Or so it seemed. Later, in an interview with Business Standard on Deuba’s visit and the triangular India-China-Nepal relations, he said it was not appropriate to discuss affairs of third countries during a bilateral visit. Another Nepali commentator remarked, “Deuba should have ignored Paswan’s comment”.

India’s core concerns in Nepal remain its security, anti-India sentiment and ultra-natioalism, stability of the Nepali Congress-Maoist coalition and constitutional amendment relating to Madhesi rights. At least two Prime Ministers — Oli and Deuba — undertook their pilgrimage to India after tabling the Constitutional Amendment Bill. While Oli facilitated the passage of the first amendment, his party blocked the second amendment tabled by Deuba. Despite this, Madhesis are finally participating in the postponed local elections to the Terai-based number 2 province next week.

The task of the Deuba-led Government is to conduct two elections before 21 January 2018 when the life of the second Constituent Assembly turned legislature expires. On November 26, the Election Commission of Nepal will conduct provincial and parliamentary elections together. Present trends favour Oli’s UML to win most provincial elections and emerge as the single largest party in national elections.

The Nepali electorate is very sharp and discerning. After the andolan for new Nepal, Maoists were overwhelming winners in the first Constituent Assembly. In the second Constituent Assembly, they dropped to third position with Nepali Congress resorting to the top position. UML is backed not just by China’s deep pockets but also by goodwill earned at India’s cost — for seen to be supporting the game-changing Madhesi blockade of 2015.

In his interview to Business Standard, Mahara said, “The next Government (without naming any party) will last five years and provide stability for economic growth”. India would hope the Nepali Congress and Maoists improve their tally of seats and along with the United Madhesi Front, come close to a two-thirds majority for passage of the 2nd Amendment. This will be difficult though.

Deuba didn’t take a hell of a lot back to Kathmandu except mostly repackaged old projects and goodwill. His is considered a holding Government. New Delhi must address Kathmandu’s concerns — its sovereignty, perceptions of micro-management, and suspicion of restoration of monarchy and a Hindu state and other outstanding issues. Soon, Nepal will be engulfed in Dasain and Tihar festivities, just prior to two most crucial elections. In the brief interregnum, India must try to regain the hearts and minds of the Nepalese lost in inelegantly promoting the cause of Nepal’s Madhesis. In 2014, Prime Minister Modi performed a minor miracle, erasing all the ills Nepalese held India responsible for, thanks to his speech writers and his oratory.

The India-China contest will be long and protracted but given the open borders, geography, Gorkha soldiers in the Indian Army and upto 10 mn Nepalis working in India, the match eventually will go India’s way. During Doklam, Nepal studiously adopted a neutral position though given there are Gorkha soldiers in the Indian Army, that’s a stance hard to sustain when things get hot. The sudden and surprise resolution of Doklam may prove a turning point for improved India-China relations after a sustained tension of over two years.

Beijing had promised to punish India for allowing the Dalai Lama to revisit Tawang escorted by a Minister. That threat of retribution, many thought, was delivered when in 2015-16 Beijing helped the Oli Government in breaking India’s political hegemony. China is now using the One Belt One Road as a commercial enterprise to penetrate not just Nepal but all of South Asia. 

The post-andolan political scene requires careful jugglery of balls, especially catering for the new electoral system. Though post-Doklam, China has said it welcomes strong India-Nepal relations, New Delhi has to keep its one time blue eyed boy, Oli, on the right side.

(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the revamped Integrated Defence Staff)

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