Foreign policy, we often hear, is an extension of domestic policy. In Nepal’s case, the opposite may be true. The course of Nepali domestic politics is largely determined from the outside, chiefly from New Delhi and increasingly Beijing and Washington DC. This may sound like an affront to proud Nepalis. But a few examples should suffice to show that is the case.
KP Oli became the prime minister by cashing in on the anti-India sentiment that had peaked in the aftermath of constitution-promulgation in 2015. Conveniently, to shore up his image at home, he started inching close to China and subsequently rode to power on his ‘pro-China’ image. Now, in yet another volte-face, Oli is now trying to hang on with Delhi’s blessings. The most important event in recent Nepali political history—the decade-long Maoist insurgency—would not have been possible had the top Maoist leaders not found a safe-haven in India. And now the ex-Raw-wallas openly boast that it is they who booted out the Shah monarchy.
It’s nigh impossible for a Nepali leader to continue his rule without India’s good wishes, as Oli is also finding out. What about China? Well, China too has started treating Nepal as its backyard where no Tibetan protests are permitted, where its ambassador routinely visits residencies of top leaders, and where the Chinese Communist Party conducts training on governance. Arguably, Nepal’s continued sovereignty owes a lot to the presence next-door of a strong China as India’s counterweight.
The Americans too have historically predicated their support for Nepal on the landlocked country allowing it unfettered access to keep a close eye on China. Even King Mahendra had to agree to let the CIA run guerrilla camps in Mustang. In fact, the US has been using Nepal as a listening post for nearly 70 years now.
It was in 1990 that the then US Secretary of State James Baker proposed the idea of a ‘third neighbor’ to Mongolia, which, just like Nepal, is precariously sandwiched between two big powers, Russia and China in this case. The idea was that America would help Mongolia manage its tricky geopolitical act between Russia and China following the end of the Cold War. Nepal has similarly been trying to reach out to the outside world beyond India and China, again starting with the Americans in late 1940s.
Recently, NATO, which was formed specifically to counter the Soviet military threat during the Cold War, said that China posed a ‘systemic challenge’ to the world order. This is a monumental development, indicating that the military coalition against China is growing. India is already a part of the Quad, a security dialogue with US, Japan and Australia. Just as worryingly, anti-China sentiments are growing by the day in India.
But whatever the Americans or Westerners say, India would be loath to give up its traditional sphere of influence in South Asia. In other words, the geopolitical balancing act is going to get a whole lot trickier for Nepal. Geography is not destiny. But it is a huge constraint. Precisely for this reason the country’s politics, arguably, is determined less by domestic forces—which keep changing their allegiance between the ‘revanchist’ communists to the north, the ‘expansionist’ democrats to the south, and the ‘imperialists’ farther away—and more by outsiders.