The visit of KP Oli gives India an opportunity to improve damaged ties
One of the biggest challenges on the Indian foreign policy front during the past few years has been how to deal with Nepal. The fact is that India faces a challenge in its own neighbourhood from China’s economic expansion and there have been few better examples of that than in Nepal. Despite India’s massive amount of assistance in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in April 2015, relations with Nepal have taken a substantial hit after India’s support to the Madhesi community during Nepal’s constitutional crisis and the economic blockade that followed. An economically aggressive China promptly sent supplies to Nepal at great cost and India’s primacy in Nepal’s economy is gradually being supplanted. So much so that Nepal is likely to give contracts to Chinese companies for several hydropower projects. And India is to blame for a lot of this, with constant flip-flops on Nepalese policy.
It is not all doom and gloom however. The very fact that Oli maintained the historical Nepalese tradition of visiting India first is a sign that India’s charm offensive and a realisation of the reality of the present relationship is a hugely positive. There was a fear that Oli could well have visited Beijing instead of New Delhi but Prime Minister Modi himself and the External Affairs Ministry machinery have spent time and energy courting Oli and the Communist Party leadership in Nepal. And Oli himself is aware that the relationship cannot afford any more brinkmanship from Nepal as well. While India is likely to have a softer approach with Nepal, New Delhi is also likely to put pressure on Kathmandu to moderate Chinese investments through, as some have suggested, slowing down on power purchase agreements as well as demonstrating to the Nepalese leadership that China is just an economic vampire and has been using the Belt and Road Initiative to compromise the sovereignty of other nations, clearly demonstrated in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. And while Nepal is smart to play off its economically and militarily powerful neighbours against each other, the realisation that this is a dangerous game, should be made obvious to them.
And policy makers in New Delhi should also understand that Nepal needs to grow economically; and it cannot continue to be a country dependent on remittances, and they should not be too insecure if Kathmandu approaches Beijing for some help. A sense of realism would help, but India should also not bend over backwards and give up some of the points it has stood for.
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