I keep hearing two competing narratives on India’s recent involvement in Nepal from the Kathmandu intelligentsia. The first has a ring of a conspiracy theory; the second sounds more benign. As India never accepted the 2015 constitution, goes the first one, it has been trying to discredit it right from the start. In no position to remove the strong KP Oli government, it decided to take the Nepali prime minister into confidence, and get him to amend the constitution to include Nepal’s new geopolitical map.
By incorporating an unsettled map in it, Oli ensured that the constitution would be impossible for India to approve. As he did so, Oli must have known no future Nepali government would dare to amend the constitution to remove parts of Nepal—if and when Nepal and India negotiate a border settlement. Oli for his part has always been a reluctant federalist, the federal project seemingly coming in the way of his majoritarian impulse. Oli thus connived with India to discredit the constitution.
Oli charted a course that would eventually lead to a complete loss of faith in the national charter. He passed another major milestone on this course when he unconstitutionally dissolved the House. That done, most recent bit of this narrative continues, Oli’s utility for the Indians ended, thus also explaining Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s refusal to see Pradeep Gyawali while he was in New Delhi.
The second narrative is that India had nothing to do with either the map’s inclusion in the constitution or the House dissolution. In fact, the unsettled map’s inclusion without its say-so displeased the Indians no end. Yes, Oli did try to later seek India’s support after doing away with the federal parliament. But he never got it. In this narrative, having had its conjuring hands repeatedly singed in Nepal, India this time decided to wait, and gleefully watched the Chinese plot to keep the Nepal Communist Party intact unravel.
At this point, the two narratives meet: Now that ‘pro-China’ Oli appears to be on his way out, India would like to have someone more agreeable in his place. India will keep watching as the NCP implodes and when the process is complete it will help cobble together a more India-friendly government. Meanwhile, India will up its charm offensive in Nepal, which has in fact already started with the offer of a million doses of Covid-19 vaccines on grant.
Whichever narrative is closer to the truth, the Chinese are the clear losers. They keep trying to unite the NCP—their informal envoys in Kathmandu STILL busy meeting top NCP leaders as well as President Bhandari. Short of immediate unity, they want the two NCP factions to together contest future elections. The Chinese want to keep their chief enablers in Nepal united at a time the Americans seek ever-closer strategic ties with India to check China’s designs here.
By contrast, things are nicely falling into place for India. The much-hated communist government is now a caretaker one; there is a chance of its closer partners in Nepali Congress and JSPN coming to power; the stock of China in Nepal has never been lower; and the US has publicly pushed for India’s lead role in Nepal. The perception India is trying to create is that it will wait and watch, at least until the Supreme Court verdict on House dissolution. Indeed, it gains nothing by showing its hands too early.
A lot of speculation always swirls around India’s motives in Nepal, and it is no different this time—and some of it can be pretty wild. But there is also some commonsense consensus: the constitution of Nepal has, by default or design, been put in danger by making it progressively harder for India to accept it.