Indian experts on Nepal, everyone from Shyam Saran to Ranjit Rae, have been advising their government to exercise restraint. That, they aver, will best protect Indian interests in Nepal. The naked Chinese intervention to save the sinking Nepal Communist Party ship, they argue, has discredited China in the eyes of common Nepalis. By contrast, India’s ‘quiet diplomacy’ has been a welcome change, and gone down well among common folks. Has it?
Arguing India should not intervene (and it shouldn’t) and that its interests are best protected by subtle diplomacy (perhaps) is one thing. Whether it really has been ‘hands off’ in Nepal now or if it will be so in the future, is another. No thinker this writer talked to before penning these lines thought India had no role in Nepal’s recent political ructions. Nor did they reckon it would desist from intervening in the future.
In fact, they suspected India’s direct hand in House dissolution. Why? Because India has never explicitly accepted the new constitution and the governments formed under it. Now by helping KP Oli to unconstitutionally dissolve the House, it has put the constitution in jeopardy. The other common thread among these thinkers was their suspicion that India’s utility of Oli had perhaps ended now, and it would look to install someone more amenable in Singhadurbar.
When Indian intellectuals argue India shouldn’t intervene in Nepal, it is worth asking back: which India are they advising? The one represented by the Hindu nationalist BJP and Narendra Modi? The South Block that has never liked taking orders from the PMO on smaller countries in the neighborhood? Or the RAW, the Indian external intelligence agency, notorious in Nepal for its part in the unceremonious dissolution of the Maoist-dominated first Constituent Assembly? Or for the current disastrous course set in motion by Kathmandu visit of its new chief Samant Goel?
Which of these three actors believes in non-interference and stability in Nepal? The BJP has for long been lobbying for a Hindu state, a goal that would be hard to realize in a stable polity. The South Block likes to maintain total control over events in the neighborhood, which, again, is not possible without creating a semblance of instability. For the RAW, well, instability is its natural playground.
In evaluating India’s role, we must also ask a fundamental question: what is New Delhi’s chief interest in Nepal right now? To ensure democracy, peace and stability, or to push back against the assertive dragon that seems intent on gobbling up India’s traditional strategic space? Considering recent events on Indo-China border, the Indian establishment’s preference is easy to guess. Yes, there are still those who believe India’s continued support for democratic process and non-intervention are India’s best offense against the Chinese; given its natural advantages in Nepal, goes this argument, the Chinese will eventually tire themselves out.
Yet, surely, the Indians won’t agree to so easily loosen their hold in a country traditionally under their strategic grip. If anything, Indian intervention, of every kind, will grow in Nepal as China too throws off its shackles. The Chinese have lately been brazen in the pursuit of their interests. And so will the Indians. Perhaps this is why no serious thinker in Nepal is ready to buy the trope of ‘aloof India’ that only ‘takes note’ of events here. We all know what happened in 2015 when it took such a note.