For a party that reaped maximum political benefit from the 2015-16 border blockade, the re-emergence of Kalapani as a national issue could be a godsend for the ruling NCP, and its leader KP Oli. Despite some success in foreign policy, the two-third Oli government has underperformed, and fallen short of honoring its ‘Happy Nepalis, Prosperous Nepal’ commitment. The reign of mafias has tightened in virtually all sectors, impunity is sky high, and threat to civil liberties increasing. And the prime minister’s health is unstable, to put the finest possible gloss on it. To make amends, the PM has ‘fired’ all his advisors and is reshuffling the cabinet.
But there will be nothing like being seen as standing strong against an ‘expansionist’ India to reestablish his nationalist credentials. When the updated map of India showing Kalapani as Indian territory first emerged, the government seemed unsure of how to react. The foreign ministry mandarins were so terrified of speaking against India that the statement condemning the Kalapani encroachment was not even issued in English, an unprecedented event. But the government soon realized that it had much to lose by staying silent, and a world to gain by loosening its tongue.
To be fair, it is not just the ruling NCP leaders who have been crying foul about the Indian encroachment. The main opposition has come out as strongly against it and vowed full support to the government. If the problem is amicably settled in Nepal’s favor, or if the government is seen as raising it strongly even as India is unmoved, most of the credit will go to Oli and company, which they can again cash in on during the next general elections.
But there is also a danger. India is determined to keep Kalapani, given its high strategic value in monitoring the Chinese in Tibet. Nor can Modi afford to be seen as ‘losing’ such a vital territory to what many Indian strategic thinkers consider China’s ‘puppet government’ in Kathmandu. Even if he were willing, state politics in Uttarakhand, where Kalapani is now placed, rules that possibility out. In this situation, New Delhi will ignore Nepal’s demands up to a point. But when it has had enough, there is no guessing how it will react.
The best-case scenario for India is to maintain the status quo on Kalapani and wait for the noise in Kathmandu to die down. But until the next election cycle in 2022, there will also be no bigger political issue in Nepal for those in the government as well as the opposition. As Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali recently put it, the two-third government cannot fail in its most basic duty: maintaining the country’s territorial integrity. In this, the Oli government, boosted by the recent high-level engagement with China, has been emboldened to stand up to India. Otherwise, it would have been inconceivable for a Nepali foreign minister to label a decades-old issue of encroachment as Indian ‘bullying’.
With Nepal now its ‘strategic partner’, will China stand as firmly with Nepal on Kalapani as it does with, say, Pakistan on Kashmir? (Not inconceivable.) Or will India and China agree to settle Kalapani without Nepal’s consent, as they have seemingly done on Lipulekh? (More likely.) Small powers seldom win important geopolitical battles. Whatever the case, the sparks from Kalapani will fly for some time yet.