A dangerous trend is taking hold in India. Since the promulgation of the new Nepali constitution in 2015 and the ensuing victory of the communist coalition under KP Oli, just about any important development in Nepal is now conveniently linked to China. The popular narrative in India seems to be that the current Nepali government is China’s puppet. This sort of gross generalization does great harm to India’s deep, multifarious relations with Nepal.
Even though the ruling NCP’s penchant for China is hard to deny, Nepal-China ties have their limits. Anyone acquainted with the political career of the current Nepali prime minister knows of his traditionally close relations with all the important political actors in New Delhi. But during the Indian blockade Oli found it convenient to distance himself from India and inch closer to China. The calculation paid off as the communist coalition he headed secured near two-thirds majority in the 2017 national elections. In this sense, he is an opportunist. But then which politician isn’t? To his credit, Oli has since tried to improve his frayed relations with India.
Oli realizes that open hostility towards India can extract a very high cost from a Nepali ruler. This is not just because Nepali rulers can’t afford to alienate their ‘big brother’. It is also a reflection of the complex and extensive Indo-Nepal ties. Yet we see India consistently trying to portray Oli as China’s handmaiden and even mull ways to remove him. Perhaps there could have been no bigger folly on India’s part than to first build a road in Lipulekh without consulting Nepal and then to suggest that the natural opposition against the road was orchestrated by China. Such callous treatment of Nepali sentiments has in fact only boosted Oli by rallying the entire country behind their prime minister.
We often hear that India has learned its lesson after the blockade. It hasn’t. Otherwise, why can’t it still respect Nepal as a sovereign country capable of making its own decisions? Why is Nepal still expected to get guidance from the south? Nepal is a functional democracy. If people don’t like this government, they will vote it out in the next election. But even as PM Oli was getting increasingly unpopular at home for his poor political judgment and lack of delivery, India, once again, threw him a lifeline by unilaterally building the road at Lipulekh. This has allowed the blockade-busting prime minister to again project himself as the only leader in Nepal capable of openly standing up to Indian bullying.
India, home to among the most astute geo-strategic thinkers over the ages starting with Kautilya, surely understands its indispensability to Nepal. The fate of the small Himalayan state is inextricably linked to India’s peace and prosperity. While talking of Chinese influence in Nepal, Indian thinkers like to define this or that ‘red line’ for Nepal, perhaps not realizing that the biggest red line for the land-locked country is its geography. Surely, even the most jingoistic Indian commentator does not seriously believe China can ‘replace’ India in Nepal. If you want to be a big power, try acting like one.