After defeating the incumbent prime minister, KP Oli is in the process of forming a new government in Nepal. He faces daunting challenges — both old and new — in the days ahead.
Let us start with the old challenges. National interest drives the foreign policy of each country. Both India and China prefer a seamlessly friendly government in Nepal, which is not possible given the strategic contest and territorial conflict between them.
King Prithivi Narayan Shah understood the conflict of interests between the two neighbors, characterized his newly unified kingdom as a yam between two large boulders, and counselled his courtiers to keep both neighbors at arm’s length. Over time, Nepali rulers forgot the unifier’s counsel. Nepal fought two wars with Tibet-China and two with British India.
Following the loss of the second war with its southern neighbor, Nepal was forced to cede one-third of its territory, most of it fertile plains, and much of its sovereign freedom under the Sugauli Treaty of 1815. Jang Bahadur Rana restored some of the lost land by helping the British quell the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, but the rest of the land and much of sovereignty remain irritrievable up to this day.
China did not pay much attention to Nepal until in grew economically and strategically into a global power. Since the turn of the new century, Beijing has begun to take interest in Nepali politics, complicating Kathmandu’s foreign relations with its immediate neighbors.
Lord Palmerston has said, states have no permanent friends or enemies, they only have permanent interests. From outside, these interests may assume varying shapes and contents in different times and contexts, but their core remains immutably the same: Strategic influence. When push comes to shove, the outer layers peel off, leaving the kernel in place.
Let me cite a few examples. The United States supported democracy and human rights in Egypt in 2011 but that changed when Muslim Brotherhood, which was unfriendly to Washington, carried the elections. It supported the coup staged by General Sisi to throw out the democratically chosen regime.
Although western countries do not tire pledging their commitment to human rights, they continue to do deals with the most oppressive but poweful and oil-rich regimes in the world.
Obviously, India prefers to maintain its strategic influence in Nepal, if not increase it. The Sugauli Treaty, 1950 Treaty, shared culture, open and accessible border, personal relations across the border, and Nepal’s economic reliance on India have given India certain advantages in Nepal. China is seeking to change the status quo.
New Delhi punishes its smaller neighbors if they cozy up with Beijing. For instance, when Nepal bought weapons from China, India imposed economic blockade on Nepal in 1989-90. Similarly, when Bhutan moved closer to China and accepted 20 Chinese buses, India cut off its fuel subsidy to Thimpu in 2013.
That brings me to the new challenges of Nepal: India’s unannounced fuel embargo; implementation of the new constitution; and Nepal’s accelerated economic development.
First, the embargo. a series of Indian political experiments in Nepal since 1950 suggest that New Delhi is yet to find an ideal political framework for it north of its border.
The 1950 political change; efforts to integrate foreign and defence policies in the 1950s; letters of 1959, 1963, and 1965; political change of 1990; Maoist insurgency 1996-2005; 2005 agreement between the Seven-Party-Alliance and the Maoists; abolition of monarchy; Terai uprising and federalism. All these events had Indian hand directly or indirectly.
We need to get rid of two misconceptions that have been witnessed in certain sections of Nepal. First, Nepal will have no problem with India in the future if this time it meets the seven Indian demands on its federalism. No, it will not end India’s quest for an optimal policy framework in Nepal. Therefore, blockade will remain a tool of India in the future to effect favorable changes in Nepal.
Blockade is a tool big and powerful countries impose on the weak and powerless all the time. India cannot be an exception.
Second, it is equally fallacious to presume that India would always be wedded to one group of political actors in Nepal. Evidence proves otherwise. India supported the monarch in 1960, the democratic parties in 1990, the Maoists in 1996-2005, only to be subsequently dumped or picked up as demanded by the situation. It would not cringe to use and throw one after another group depending its foreign policy objective of the time.
Now New Delhi is propping up the Madheshi parties. But the Madheshi parties have already had their arms twisted by the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu to participate in the recent prime ministerial vote under the constitution they had rejected, shredded and burned to help the outgoing Prime Minister Sushil Koirala from the Nepali Congress Party.
What is more, sometimes, internal politics in India also hurts Nepal. Dr. Shalik Ram Koirala, a Tribhuvan University professor, told me that the current oil embargo may be handiwork of the Congress-dominated Indian bureaucracy to damage the Bharatiya Janata Party’s government led by Prime Minister Modi.
Although, just like other Nepalis, I am angry with India because my son does not have patrol to drive to work and my relatives do not have gas to cook their food due to the oil embargo, I do not viscerally blame New Delhi for doing its job — promoting its national interest. That is what every country around the world seeks to do. That is what Nepal must do. If doing so hurts your neighbor, tough luck.
Tomorrow if we use our water resources within Nepal or diversify our trade further, it will hurt India. But using the water resources and diversifying the trade are the right things to do for Nepal.
Anyway, in the short-run, implementing the new constitution and promoting development would be impossible in Nepal unless Kathmandu finds a modus vivendi with New Delhi. The Oli government must make clear quickly which ones of the seven demands it is in a position to meet and meet them quickly,and tell New Delhi which ones it cannot.
But in the long-run, it will be suicidal for Nepal to rely on India or China, to not make a better use of its resources, and to not diversify its trade and economic relations with the rest of the world. Reconstruction of the earthquake devastated homes and infrastructure, hydropower, manufacturing, and diversification of trade and economic relations are the vehicles to accelerated development.
Nepal should diversify both its import markets and its export markets not to spite or revenge India, which would be wrong and counterproductive, but to make them more reliable. Foreign policy is not charity. Therefore, Nepal should expect other countries to pursue their national interests as well.
Hopefully, the new prime minister, KP Oli, would understand the basics of foreign policy, pursue Nepal’s external relations to advance Nepal’s national interest, and remove the Indian oil embargo that is hurting the Nepali people unspeakably, without confusing the immediate imperatives with the long-term goal.