There is hardly a foreign policy wonk in either Nepal or India who is not publicly in favor of dialogue to resolve the outstanding border dispute. Yet it is also hard to see what the two sides will discuss—much less resolve—if they talk now. The mutual distrust is far too great. The risk is that they will talk more as their country’s aggrieved representatives than as cool-headed negotiators, further complicating matters.
As Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali has said, Nepal’s bottom-line is the pullout of Indian troops from Kalapani. But at a time of escalating border tensions with China, the Indians will not be ready to withdraw from Kalapani, the strategic outpost that helps them keep a close eye on the PLA garrison in Taklakot. In that case, what other alternative will Nepal offer to India?
The last thing PM KP Oli—widely criticized for his bungling of the Covid-19 response, and cornered in his own party—wants, is to be seen as compromising on national sovereignty with India. The Nepali blood still aboil, anything short of getting India to fully agree to the new map will be viewed as treason back home. On the other hand, if he can hold his ground against the big brother, Oli will place himself well going into the ruling party’s impending general convention and, after that, the next round of national elections.
Oli, who returned to power on the back of his resolute stand against the Indian blockade, has no other political card up his sleeve. Even if his government badly botches the Covid-19 response, even if it appears to be profiting from people’s misery, even if it has dashed most public expectations, Oli reckons people will still forgive him if he refuses to blink against India. Traditionally, a strong anti-India posturing has been a foolproof path to power, more so in times of Nepal-India hostilities.
The more uncompromising the Nepali negotiating team appears on Kalapani, the greater will be the belief among its Indian counterpart that Oli really has sold his soul to China. The Nepali prime minister has not helped his cause with the Indians by belittling India’s national emblem and blaming it for Nepal’s corona crisis. Nepal’s unconditional support for recent China’s actions in Hong Kong will also have been noted.
If the two sides get talking, the Indians could propose a complete rewriting of bilateral ties—this time with the sole intent of securing India’s security interests. With an end of the ‘special relations’, India won’t be obliged to make any concessions to Nepal. But if they really propose to, say, regulate the open border or cancel visa-free access to Nepali citizens, will the Nepali side be able to accept the proposals? I am unaware of any kind of homework in Nepal on how the country will deal with this kind of monumental change in its foreign policy.
Nepal-India relations are on the verge of derailment, and it won’t be easy to bring them back on track. One hope could be that, special relations or not, the ever-present threat of China usurping India’s strategic space in the region will make India amenable to compromise, if only partially, in Nepal’s favor.
But that is a risky bet. China has repeatedly compromised Nepali interests at the altar of its business ties with India. It could do so again. What if India, while it engages Nepal, is simultaneously negotiating with China on Kalapani? PM Oli may think Nepal has China’s back on the region. Verbal assurances aside, where is hard proof?