As Oli goes downhill, so does India’s clout in Nepal
Nepal-India relations can be taken as a case of “familiarity breeding contempt.” The ties between the two countries are multi-faceted and unique. They have more similarities than differences. And the history of togetherness has been long.
Both countries are more than 80% Hindu. They have a common heritage of culture, civilization and descent. 70% of Nepal’s total external trade is with India. It’s currency is pegged to India’s. Nearly one fourth of the 77 districts share borders with India where inter-marriages are common. Free water flow from the rivers of Nepal irrigates Indian soil.
It appears that they have an enormous potential to prosper together. But at the same time, a large number of projects undertaken by India, mostly in the hydro-power sector, have remained unfinished despite the assurance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who admitted during his first official visit to Nepal way back in July 2014 three months after assuming power, that India will start delivering and maintaining the time schedule for projects. The potential for 'prospering together' still remains a dream unfulfilled.
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The two countries have seen ups and downs in their relationship. Nepal, a landlocked country, has suffered economic blockade thrice--first in the early 70’s, the second time for 18 months in 1988-89 for purchasing arms from China, and the third time in 2015 when Nepal refused to accept some of the suggestions coming from Delhi regarding the rights of people along the border who it claims to be of 'Indian origin'. Nepal asserted that the rights of Nepalis living anywhere was its concern, and not that of a neighbor.
The discord in relations was followed by a 134-day long blockade affecting the supply of petroleum products, medicines and other essential commodities. In a rebound, Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli moved fast to have a trade and transit agreement with China ending dependence on India alone.
For the first time, India realized the adverse consequences of its interference in Nepal's internal politics. Interference had been brazen after 2005-06. In 2017, Nepal signed the Belt and Road Initiative with China, without heeding India's advice against it. Politically, Oli's firm handling of the situation, especially during the blockade, paid him political dividends. He returned to power in the 2017 general election. But he also seems to have taken anti-Indianism as a “mantra” and believes that it will always pay dividends.
Oli's recent criticism of India was much more strident than during the time of the 2015 blockade. He said that India is out to topple his government, going by the activities of the Indian embassy in Kathmandu and those of certain Nepali leaders opposed to him.
Oli is currently at the center of criticism in the ruling Nepal Communist Party. His projection of India as the conspirator, came as the powerful Standing Committee of the Party was all set to censure him for his failure both as Party chief and as Prime Minister. By alleging that India is collaborating with his opponents, he is clearly trying to whip up a nationalist sentiment across the country in his favor as he did during the blockade and be a hero once again.
But his government’s inefficiency, massive corruption involving the Prime Minister’s office and his megalomaniacal act of bringing all the investigative agencies under him have made him a villain in the estimation of the people.
Oli's generally powerful oratory, and his sense of humour, with the ability to hit his rivals below the belt at times, are not admired any longer. They have been proved counter-productive, especially after his promise to have trains across the length and breadth of the country, and centrally supplied cooking gas to each house during the last election proved to be a hoax.
What Oli had said regarding India recently should have been a bomb-shell in Delhi, but a normally aggressive Delhi chose not to respond. Delhi and Kathmandu are at loggerheads at the moment over a 370 sq km area along the tri-junction of Nepal, Tibet and India. Nepal retaliated against Indian claims over Kalapani, Lipulek and Limpiadhura by producing a new map including these territories.
Oli charged that India was out to dislodge him after he brought out the new map. "I am not trying to get any other country's territory back. I am elected by the people of Nepal, and to remove me will not be possible for any outsider," he said at a program organized by the Madan Bhandari Foundation, an NGO closely affiliated to his Party.
Unofficially, the Indian side says that it could not even think that Oli will go that far at a time India is facing China with all the fury and there is fear of a heightened conflict over the border. Oli has been a beneficiary of China's visible support to him when he was on the verge of exiting following a revolt within his party. The Chinese ambassador Hou Yanqi, defying corona lockdown, met two senior opponents of Oli-Madhav Kumar Nepal and Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda on May 1-- with a plea that a stable government will be the ideal precondition for continued Nepal-China cooperation.
But, two months down the line, Oli is in deep crisis once again. Maybe he thought that criticism of India will be the best way to secure China's support once again. However, China cannot ignore the fact that his party leaders are rigidly against him this time around.
"I hear there are all sorts of moves afoot, including a coupon the Afghan, or Pakistan or Bangladesh Model,” Prachanda, co-chairperson of Oli’s party, said during the inaugural session of the Standing Committee, implying that Oli may even use the army to quell political dissent.
While Prachanda, like Oli, is in the habit of exaggerating things, the fall of the government that almost got two third majority some 28 months ago, appears imminent, if not within weeks, definitely in a few months.
The question “After Oli who?” has no clear answer. But even his supporters believe that Oli bungled the chance he got. "Oli is in a hurry to oust himself,” said Dr Prakash Chandra Lohani, co-chairman of the pro-monarchy Rastriya Prajatantra Party and a former Foreign Affairs minister.
But in all this, India may not be able to play the role it played openly in 2005. Oli's oratory and 'nationalism' card, as well as India's over-interference, have proved to be counter-productive.