Nepal and India at crossroads

Murari Sharma

Nepali Prime Minister KP Oli will be out on a visit to India on February 19, 2016. The trip was in limbo for some time because of the Indian economic embargo against Nepal. Since all border points have eased up from yesterday, the visit has been announced. It is good news, but it might prove too premature to celebrate it.

For starters, India had imposed the undeclared blockade at the end of September 2015, soon after Nepal promulgated its new constitution, making the Nepalis immeasurably miserable. No cooking gas, no petrol, no disel. It was furious because Nepali leaders had refused to postpone the promulgation of the statute until the small Madheshi regional parties signed on. India had made its demand known by inviting Nepal leaders to New Delhi and by sending its foreign secretary to Kathmandu.

However, Nepali leaders waited only for thee days and approved the constitution. India imposed the sanctions in revenge. Well founded or not, Kathmandu feared that New Delhi was plotting to get the second Constituent Assembly (CA) dissolved, because it had fewer members from the Madheshi parties than in the first CA, hoping that these parties would secure more seats in the third CA and press their demand more forcefully.

Indeed, India cares about the Madheshis in Nepal, who have nuptial and cultural ties in its border states. However, as Lord Palmerstone has said: Countries have no permanent friends; they only have permanent interests. India has three strategic, permanent interests in Nepal.

First, India wishes to integrate Nepal more closely in its security umbrella to prevent its northern neighbor from veering off towards China, its main rival and competitor. Second, it wants to monopolize the use of Nepal’s abundant water resources to meet its ever-growing irrigation and energy needs. Third, India would like to see the Madheshi province(s), which will be created under the federal constitution, have a near complete control over Nepal’s access to it and the majority members in the federal parliament come from there so that it does not have to use direct coercion on Kathmandu to meets its first two objectives.

Evidently, the Madheshi parties share the third Indian strategic interest. They have demanded, among other things, proportional representation in all branches of government, allocation of parliamentary constituencies based on population only, and one province for the entire Terai under the new federal constitution.  Nepali leaders agreed on the first two demands but not on the third, and Madheshi leaders from the regional parties did not compromise without the third. So the constitution was approved when these Madheshi parties boycotted the CA.

Although India had claimed that Madheshi parties of Nepal had obstructed the border points, it was only true by half. These parties had picketed less than half of the 22 border points, but India had imposed restrictions on all points. When the international community expressed deep concerns about a humanitarian crisis brewing up due to the blockade so soon after the devastating earthquakes in April and May 2015, India began to send about a third of the petroleum products necessary for Nepal.

Considering the demand of the Madheshi regional parties and India, Nepal recently amended the constitution to accommodate the first two demands and committed to find agreement on the third. But New Delhi refused to lift the embargo. When Prime Minister Oli indicated that, if the blockade was not lifted quickly, he could first visit Beijing. Other Nepali officials made it clear that preparations were being made to sign agreements with China on petroleum products, new transit points, and new road and railway connections.

India does not want Nepal to get any closer to China, and it takes it as an insult if a Nepali prime minister visits Beijing before New Delhi.

These developments in Nepal triggered a barrage of criticism of the Modi government in India. The upper house of parliament even formally discussed the issue. There, some expressed concerns about the hardships facing the Nepali people and India being viewed negatively, others criticized Modi for letting China increase its influence in Nepal.

Perhaps because of these developments, India recently invited the Madheshi party leaders to New Delhi for consultation. It appears that Indian officials told these leaders to hold their fire and let the obstructed border points open. Suddenly from yesterday, even the Birguanj-Raxaul border, from where more than 60 percent fuel is imported, has been working normally.

It would be inane to believe that India would abandon its vital interests. I hope I am proven wrong, but I think India will corner Oli in New Delhi to sign an agreement or at least make a firm commitment to fulfill its strategic interests in Nepal to receive its blessings. If he refuses to comply, Oli will have to come back prepared to lose his premiership or face the re-imposed economic sanctions.  So hold back your celebration.

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