For a government that relies so heavily on muscular nationalism and rhetoric around territorial sovereignty as well as the freedom to take independent foreign policy positions, the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled India seems oddly surprised that another country might resort to the same strategy.
New Delhi has known about Nepal’s claims on Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura, which fall in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, since the 1990s. It was alerted to Kathmandu’s current concerns in November 2019. Yet the Indian government appeared to be taken aback when its virtual inauguration of a road that travels through this territory into China provoked a nationalist response in Nepal, with hashtags like #BackOffIndia trending on social media.
The Nepal Parliament on Saturday passed an amendment to its Constitution that would alter national maps, showing the territory claimed by India as its own. A statement from New Delhi called this move “violative” and “not tenable”. Yet the fact that it had even come down to a Constitutional Amendment, passed with two-thirds majority in Nepal’s Parliament, reflects a serious diplomatic failure. India is now reportedly trying to reach out to Kathmandu, asking it to undo the changes.
Kathmandu is undoubtedly being belligerent here.
Nepal Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s government, which appeared beleaguered just a few months ago, has latched on to this perceived slight from India – even though the construction of the road was hardly a secret and New Delhi has built infrastructure in the region before.
The issue appears to have put wind into Oli’s sails, which may explain why he was so willing to rush a Bill before Parliament, despite the risk this poses to what is undoubtedly Nepal’s most important international relationship, even if it is no longer a “special” one.
It is extremely unlikely that any Nepali politician or bureaucrat believes that India is actually going to concede any ground, even if Kathmandu tries to play the China card or attempts to take the matter to a multilateral forum.
India knows this, and may have even expected some mild concern from Nepal following the inauguration of the road. Yet the vehemence of the domestic anger against India also seems to have surprised New Delhi, which responded by sulking.
“India’s silence is the greatest cause for concern for the future of bilateral relations and is creating natural uneasiness in Kathmandu,” wrote Constatino Xavier of the Brookings Institution. “After indirectly indicating its displeasure at the politically charged environment in Nepal, India has largely remained silent... Silence speaks volumes and the relationship may now be in for a deep freeze. We do not know the exact reasons why, but it certainly transpires that Delhi does not feel comfortable to address the issue at this point or in the current context.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Neighbourhood First approach – a policy objective of addressing India’s immediate sphere of influence – brought a new sense of urgency to ties that had been in various states of disrepair earlier.
The policy has led to significant achievements on the connectivity front, yet the growing influence of China in the neighbourhood and India’s usual implementation failures have meant that the efforts are still well below their potential. Meanwhile, the muscular nationalism that the BJP-run government promotes at home has risked endangering India’s political ties with neighbourhood nations, even as other arms of the Indian state push South Asian cooperation as the way forward.
New Delhi will have to recognise that even as it seeks to assert itself in its traditional sphere of influence, particularly with Beijing’s money being showered all around it, it cannot ignore that each country has its own domestic constituency and that pushing back against Indian hegemony will be a powerful motivator for many.
This does not mean India should give in. But its diplomatic corps and strategic planners should take into account how its moves – and the belligerent rhetoric of the BJP – will affect these ties, so that they are not surprised by similarly vehement reactions from neighbours.