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Delhi loses another friendly neighbour

By Jyoti Malhotra

Make no mistake it was in deference to China’s sensitivities that Nepal pulled out of the BIMSTEC military exercise, which kicked off in Pune Monday, at the last minute.
The latest spat between India and Nepal begs the question: Has Delhi “lost” another neighbour, after Pakistan and the Maldives?
As the biggest neighbour in terms of size, population, GDP, foreign exchange reserves or any other indicator, India believes the neighbourhood must give it the respect it deserves. What is equally true is that New Delhi must reach out to all the players in these countries even as it follows the maxim of dealing with the political party in power.
In Nepal’s case, for example, prime minister K.P. Oli’s co-Communist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ has just concluded a successful visit to India. Prachanda was very happy with his meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, the RSS think-tank India Foundation and the PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry – even if he didn’t get the time to take his grandson for a ride in Delhi’s famed metro.
According to one school of thought in Kathmandu, the red carpet treatment to Prachanda in Delhi has upset Oli. It is said that the story about Nepal signing a transit protocol with China was deliberately leaked during Prachanda’s visit to India so that he knows who holds the reins of power.
In an interview with ThePrint, Prachanda admitted that there is an “understanding” between him and Oli about the nature of the government that is in place in Kathmandu.
However, he did not directly comment on the nature of the power-sharing, and whether he and Oli are going to be prime minister for two-and-a-half years each.
Certainly, that’s an internal Nepali matter. If Oli wants to embed himself further into China’s arms, by reducing his dependence on India, it is certainly his prerogative. It is Nepal’s sovereign right to decide the course of its destiny. The feeling in Kathmandu that “India always behaves like a patronising big brother” was not helped by Delhi’s decision to push a six-month long blockade in the Terai in 2015-2016, even if its motives were to draw attention to the decades-old discrimination faced by Madhes.
In fact, the continuing story of that discrimination will be made clear when the Eminent Persons Group (EPG), drawn from both countries, delivers its report on how to improve the bilateral relationship to both prime ministers in October.
It seems the Nepali side wants to introduce identity cards to regulate a “smart border”. In effect, this would mean that Indians and Nepalis who hop across the open border hundred times a day – whether to buy groceries or go to school orvisit the house of a family member – will not be able to do so because of so-called security considerations.
In Hindi, the phrase is: ‘apne pairon pe kulhari maarna’ (to cut your nose to spite your face). Nepal wants to destroy the ancient “roti-beti” relationship between the people of the Terai and the adjoining states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Himachal Pradesh.
How should Delhi deal with this? By reaching out to all the political parties in Nepal as well as the civil society so that all the bases are covered. But the Nepali Congress leaders are complaining that Delhi has abandoned them, perhaps because they have been traditionally close to India’s Congress party. Both Shekhar Koirala and former prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba are among the complainants.
The fact that China has expanded its influence across South Asia is hardly news. Beijing is not going to take Delhi’s traditional sphere of influence in the region into account in its race to become a world power.
For the moment, with its limited resources, Delhi seems to be playing a defensive game even as it protects its interests. Reaching out to Prachanda, for example, is a message to Oli that he cannot take India for granted. India has already told Oli that if Nepal brings China into the high Himalayas to build its dams, he certainly has the right to do so, Delhi won’t buy the power that is produced.
On Pakistan, the movement seems comparatively glacial. A meeting between Sushma Swaraj and her counterpart, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, is on the cards in New York on the margins of the UN General Assembly. Note that there has been no official comment on Pakistan’s alleged offer to open the border at Kartarpur Sahib so that Indian Sikh pilgrims can walk across and pay their respects. Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu has euphorically welcomed it, but Delhi maintains a studied silence.
So, the old question: Is India losing Nepal, along with Pakistan and the Maldives? The answer is simple. When politicians take charge, things usually improve. Sushma Swaraj, in charge of Nepal, seems to be handling that relationship deftly.
What about Pakistan and the Maldives? It seems everyone, from the Prime Minister to the national security adviser to the chief of the R&AW, has a view on these two countries. The confusion certainly shows.