Is the Nepal-India ‘special relationship’ undergoing a fundamental shift?

In recent geopolitical scenario, there seems to be a movement by Nepal to move towards China to find an alternative to their dependence over India.

Image: Blogonomix

Nepal’s new Prime Minister, KP Oli has said he wants to deepen ties with China to explore more options and get more leverage in his dealings with India “in keeping with the times.” Nepal apparently has been prompted by China to get close to Pakistan too. The alternative to this was in Myanmar, where China which brought in Pakistan to have military establishment in Myanmar. Nepal and Pakistan were the first countries that wanted China to be a full member of SAARC too. Moreover, prima facie, K P Oli is not very India-friendly. Nepali nationalism has been whipped up as anti-India. Even Indian policies are against Nepalese. There has been polarization by Oli on the basis of regional Nepal is changing and with that, the economic dialogue is changing

Deepening ties with China means Nepal might be considering the China-backed $2.5 billion hydropower project. There is also talk of a transit treaty with Beijing to reduce dependence on India for the landlocked country. They’re also looking to revive the Budhi Gandaki project, improving rail and road network between Nepal and China through Tibet. There has been China Study Centers to popularize the Chinese language, disseminate anti-India propaganda and reinforce traditional Chinese diplomacy.

There has been redevelopment of Lumbini, Airport and seminary-cum-monastery, Long-term presences of Chinese military personnel etc. China has emerged as the largest source of foreign direct investment in Nepal. China is the 2nd largest source of foreign tourist to Nepal. Other key Chinese projects include Upper Trishuli Hydropower Project  and Transmission Line Projects (concessional loan), Food/Material Assistance (grant) to Nepal, Tatopani Frontier Inspection Station Project, Pokhara International Regional Airport (loan) etc.

Moreover, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Abbasi too visited Nepal recently. Abbasi has been the first leader to visit Nepal after the new government was formed. This might give rise to new access,through a new alliance- China, Pakistan, Nepal.  Reviving SAARC process has been welcomed by Oli. Moreover, this was not a proposal that was planned or discussed earlier. What then was the compulsion to meet just within a week Oli took over, especially when his government was not fully formed? This might be in retort to Vietnamese leader’s visits to India.

What should then be the strategy adopted by India?

Increasing People-to-People Engagement is of prime importance.  Indian government should take into account all the projects that were promised to Nepal and should make sure that these projects are completed on time. There should be better implementation and delivery of projects. People in Nepal should perceive some stake in economic cooperation. Nepal should take the ownership of these projects. We should keep both Pakistan and China away from regional agreements and groupings. India has a veto power and hence should not be coy or shy about it. As SAARC is not going anywhere, focus should be on BIMSTEC.  Revival of SAARC can also help because simply shutting down on SAARC doesn’t take us any far. Kunwing to Kolkata- trade is a good proposition too. Anyhow, China is still our largest trading partner unlike Pakistan with which we have existential ideological divide and one’s DNA cannot change overnight. China has taken aggressive posture militarily, issues relating to Hafiz Saeed, Dalai Lama etc. Trade deficit is huge and this trade is entirely in China’s favour.

It should also be noted that Nepal’s relation with India is cultural and historic yet Nepal needs a lot of space to engage with others too.  Landlocked Nepal is helped with pensions from India. Moreover, as far as Nepal is concerned, China can never be closer to Nepal because when it comes to geography, India has a huge role to play. We have an open border with Nepal and Nepalese people come here for livelihood. Kathmandu elite only favor China , rest all Nepalese, cannot do without India even though Oli wants to change this. It should not be forgotten that Nepalese soldiers have shed blood for India too. SAARC process was stalled due to Pakistan’s attitude on terrorism and Nepal currently being the chairman of SAARC, meeting Pakistan PM is in diplomatic parlance. Hence, we should not read anything more to the visit of Pakistan PM to Nepal.  Oli also mentioned that Nepal is a sovereign country and will make it own decisions. India supported the rightful rights of Terai people, so it is just emotional upheaval of hills people and nothing more than that. As far as Kathmandu is concerned, India should not overreact. We should just keep a close and alert watch.

Ipsita Mishra

Ipsita Mishra

Contributor at InPRA
Ipsita Mishra has completed her B.A.LL.B(IPR Hons.) from National Law University Odisha, Cuttack. Presently working part time as a Research Assistant at Centre for Public Policy Research, Kochi. She has also worked in various capacities as Legal Associate, Legal Journalist and Legal Consultant. She has interned with Law Commission of India and various NGOs and Law firms. Her areas of interest includes Human Rights, Governance and Policy issues, International Law and Strategic Affairs.
Ipsita Mishra