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Time for India, Nepal to recalibrate ties

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Time for India, Nepal to recalibrate ties

Oli won the election on an anti-India campaign which became synonymous with ultra-nationalism. His term marks the start of India-China competition in the  Himalayan state

Prime Minister KP Oli arrived half an hour late for his last function organised by the BJP’s India Foundation, the party’ informal diplomatic outreach. A restless audience included Government Ministers, the thinking community, diplomats and the media. The contents of Oli’s longish speech, though quite spectacular, were lost in the routine delivery. There was no standing ovation.

Then closing his file and speech, Oli looked up, suddenly alight and energetic. Placing both his arms on the lectern and surveying the audience, he said: “There are rumours and rumours that my Government is a threat to democracy” and he briefly countered it. His critique apparently pointed to an Indian expert, who according to a Nepali journalist present, had written/spoken on television in Nepal that the Left alliance posed a threat to democracy. The second rumour was regarding Oli’s pro-China disposition. He said. “There will be no tilt towards China.” It was jolly good way to wake up the audience and end his visit to New Delhi.

His read out speech contained one more gem. It was a veiled reference to the blockade — which is part of the great misunderstanding of 2015-16 — he warned that blocking movement of goods, services and people should have no place in today’s interconnected world and the interconnected neighbourhood. As someone who followed his public utterances, Oli has been messaging to India not to take Nepal for granted and treat it as an equal with respect and dignity and as an independent and sovereign country without messing in its internal affairs. That, according to him, will reduce the current trust deficit.

The courting of Oli by India who won a thumping mandate, is the clearest indication of an intended reset in relations. Oli had indicated that he will not discuss any ‘internal matters’ with India. That is why there was no talk on China, Constitutional issues and OBOR which Oli said is in Nepal’s national interest. The Indian stand is quite the opposite. The one-on-one talks between the two Prime Ministers did cover assurances by both sides to uphold each other’s legitimate national and security interests.

The question no one asked Oli and in Beijing Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying is why did China not invite Oli to preempt the India visit. After all, Beijing’s role in Nepal is anything but the stated policy of non-interference in internal affairs. China’s influence is ubiquitous: Its economic investment substantive and role in domestic politics widespread and weighty. Optically, it would have been a major political victory for China had Oli been invited first to Beijing than new Delhi.

In 2008, Maoist pro-China Prime Minister, Prachanda made his first foreign visit to Beijing to attend the closing ceremony of the Olympics much to India’s dismay and breaking the India First tradition. On his return, Prachanda announced that his first ‘political’ visit would be to India and so it was. Prachanda’s time was consumed by  strategies for occupancy of Baluwatar (Prime Minister’s residence) and watching  the shuffling of Marxist-Leninists and Maoist contenders for the job but Prachanda did not become Prime Minister again till his gentleman’s power-sharing agreement with Deuba in 2016. He deserted Deuba mid stream by joining the Left Alliance.

Inside the unified Marxist Leninist core group, a debate has started on the proposed merger with Maoists and the nomenclature of the party. Many young leaders are questioning the contemporary relevance of the dear departed Marx and Lenin and are in favour of renaming the party giving it a socialist, democratic and inclusive hue. But they fear the Maoists would block this. Such visionary ideas are unlikely to materialize anytime soon.

Oli spoke about the 80 per cent vote his Government secured in the Parliament and that soon he would have an unprecedented three fourths majority with both the Terai-based Federal Socialist Forum and the Rashtriya Janata Party joining the Government.

Besides numerical strength, the Government will then truly acquire a whole-of-Nepal complexion. It would also provide cushion in any future political realignments with Maoists acting as the swing party. The merger of the two Left parties is slated for April 22 but sharing the spoils of office with Prachanda in the new Communist Party of Nepal will not be easy. The Maoist argument is that if 60:40 was acceptable for seat sharing during elections, a 50:50 division ought to be reasonable in the share of leadership in the party central organization and its tiers down to the local level. It seems that eventually Oli may concede the 60:40 or 55:45 formula. On the larger question of a future Prachanda premiership there is little stated clarity, equally little doubt, that it is inevitable.

India has chosen to place most of its eggs in the Oli basket with few alternate options. This was evident from doubling economic assistance for Nepal by 73 per cent to nearly Rs 650 crore, second only to Bhutan. Oli’s aim is to use the political stability for making Nepal prosperous and happy and utilising both its powerful neighbours in focusing on development. Equidistant is the sine-qua non of his foreign policy.

Oli has sought Indian investment in hydropower, farming, infrastructure and tourism. India is already building 50,000 homes following the 2015 earthquake. Apparently, Modi bluntly told Oli that if China will build most of its hydropower projects, India will not buy the surplus power. The $2.5 billion Budhi Gandaki hydel project has become the bone of contention between India and China though Oli has promised  it to Beijing. Most high-value infrastructure projects have been bagged by China.

While the commissioning of the long-delayed Arun III hydropower project was postponed during the visit due to ecological difficulties on the Nepal side, new oil pipelines, railway lines including one to Kathmandu, inland waterways, accessing the sea, have been pledged by India.

Many projects, for which commitments were made years ago, never took off, Nepalese keep reminding India. Oli is supposed to have told Modi about the decades-old Pancheshwar and Mahakali projects and said that Delhi was required to build a 1.5 km road from Banbasa to Mahendranagar. Nepal has waited 22 years and added: “India is known to build 30 km of roads every day’’. India must improve quality and timely delivery of projects because  comparison is made with China.

Ironically Oli won the elections on an anti-India cry which became synonymous with ultra-nationalism. His term marks the start of the  India-China competition with a Nepali umpire.

(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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