It’s complicated: The China factor in India-Nepal relationship

The Indian neighbourhood is getting more complex as Chinese shadows lengthen.

Three multilateral conferences have been in the news recently. First, it was the postponement of the 19th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit that was scheduled to be held in Islamabad on November 15-16. Then it was the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa summit at Benaulim, Goa, and alongside the latter, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation leaders’ meetings with the Brics leaders.

But the curiosity was not about what the 7,300-word Brics Declaration contained but as to how some of the bilateral relationships panned out in Benaulim. In any case, the Brics Declaration had little meaning, since it mentioned almost everything under the sun. What transpired in the bilateral summits, for example, in the one between the Prime Minister of Nepal, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, and the President of China, Xi Jinping, became the question. This one-to-one conversation lasted for just 20 minutes after which the two were joined by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a 15 minute-long unscheduled and unplanned meeting that was described by Prachanda’s son, Prakash Dahal as “coincidental” on his Facebook page.

“With the help of right support from these major countries, Nepal’s prosperity is possible,” Dahal wrote on his Facebook page, as he posted photographs of the meeting. Presumably, Prachanda and Xi had not simply discussed the beauty of the Benaulim beach.

After insightfully pointing out that China and Nepal are connected by rivers and mountains, Xi “also called for concerted efforts to carry out the consensuses the two sides have reached on beefing up cooperation on connectivity, free trade and energy and continue to push forward cooperation in their pursuit of development," Chinese state-run media agency, Xinhua reported.

"China is ready to support Nepal in its post-earthquake reconstruction, especially in restoring infrastructure, people's well-being and historical relics,” Xinhua added about what Xi had said to Prachanda.

China-Nepal relations have political and strategic implications for India. India, of course would be happier if Nepal pays it more attention than it does to China. Indeed, that is always the case, but India wants more. For all India’s small neighbours, Nepal included, the diplomatic trump vis-à-vis India is their China card which they have learnt to flaunt whenever they feel the necessity of neutralising India’s “over-lordship”. This tension is a permanent fixture in India’s neighbourhood diplomacy.

Unlike in the past, China, of late, has shown more interest in Nepal’s domestic politics. In May 2016 when Nepal’s then KP Sharma Oli government was on the verge of collapse on account of Maoist Prachanda’s threat of withdrawal of support, it was the Chinese “intervention” that saved the day for Oli. China reportedly counselled Prachanda to relent. According to some Nepal watchers, this was the first time that China took a position on a purely domestic matter. Now the same Prachanda is at the helm of the Nepal government. China has reasons to feel assured. In contrast, India has reasons for concern.

Changing contours

Prachanda’s diplomacy could well be his country’s traditional one: maintaining equal distance from both its big neighbours, India and China, or, to remain equally close to both of them. In that sense it is the Nepalese nationalism that speaks, and not whether it is a monarchy as it was in the past, or that it is a republic, as at present. Or, whether the rulers are Maoists or not.

In the 1970s, it was the policy of the monarchy to declare “Nepal as a zone of peace” meaning both India and China should keep off Nepal. Since those days China did not matter for Nepal’s politics, the message was clear: Nepal politics should be out of bounds for India. Now that China is actively engaged in Nepal’s politics and diplomacy the tone of the Nepal leadership has changed. Nepalese newspaper Himalayan Times has reported Prachanda as saying:

“We wish to reap benefits of this geographical specialty by working as a dynamic bridge between the two countries.”

Xi reportedly complimented Nepal for keeping an equidistant relationship with China and India while expressing his hope that in the future the three countries would mutually gain. Indeed, Modi had little option other than sharing this pious thought.

Nepal is a challenge for the Modi government not only for the China factor but also for how to deal with its ethnic question – the controversy between the Nepali and Madhesi (Indian origin Nepalese of the Terai region) identities. The challenge is at two levels, one, the Maoists are in power, and two, the Madhesis are a disgruntled lot whose disaffection can easily spill over into India as it happened in the recent past, which resulted in the plugging of the open India-Nepal borders causing economic hardship to Nepal in general and to the Terai region in particular.

The nature of the Indian state which is essentially bourgeois can never be at ease with a Communist regime next door. It would have been so even if the Congress had been in power. Under the present Bharatiya Janta Party rule it is even more expected. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sevak, which is the ideological mentor of the BJP, is avidly opposed to the Marxists and Maoists. They have not reconciled themselves to the demise of the only Hindu state in the world. During the anti-monarchy movement in the 1990s their sympathies were for King Gyanendra. There was nothing personal about it nor for the monarchy as an institution. It was in the hope that through him, the Hindu state of Nepal would survive.

In the meantime, on the one hand, Nepal has become a republic and that too left-oriented, and on the other, the BJP has captured power in India, after 2014 more firmly. The impact of these two developments is inevitable on the Terai politics. It is now a question of time when the ideology of Hindutva will find its footprints on the Terai soil (95% of Nepal’s 4.5% Muslims are in the Terai). Mercifully, the region has not so far seen any Hindu-Muslim conflict but more the Madhesis feel marginalised in the politics of Nepal, and there will be politics of scale which is inevitable in a mass democracy, more it will find expression in Hindutva-oriented politics, with or without visible support from the RSS/BJP. Under these circumstances the already complex relationship between India and Nepal is bound to be more complicated, with the China factor further stirring the brew.

Partha S Ghosh is ICSSR National Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

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