Much of the goodwill with Nepal was frittered away by what was seen as India’s interference in internal Nepali politics when it seemingly imposed a blockade after expressing its displeasure over inadequate representation for certain communities, including the Madhesis, in the new constitution.
Nepal’s Left alliance – a conglomeration of former Maoists and Communists – is certain to form the next government in Kathmandu. The rival centrist Nepali Congress alliance of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, comprising Madhesi parties and former royalists, is not likely to pose much of a challenge. This means that after a change of 10 administrations in as many years, Nepal could finally get a stable government.
While this is good news for Nepal, which has been hobbled by corruption, poor economic growth and a breakdown in infrastructure following the 2015 earthquake, it is causing considerable disquiet in India. The likely return to power of former Nepal prime minister KP Oli, whose relations with New Delhi have been fraught and who is seen as close to China, suggests that there could be a shift in geo-strategic policy in the Himalayan nation. Nepal serves as a buffer between India and China but has always tilted towards India with whom it has an open border. In fact, New Delhi was quick off the mark when the devastating earthquake of 2015 struck, moving in men and material for help within 24 hours. Nepal is the only country whose citizens can serve in the Indian army. But much of the goodwill following the earthquake was frittered away by what was seen as India’s interference in internal Nepali politics when it seemingly imposed a blockade after expressing its displeasure over inadequate representation for certain communities, including the Madhesis, in the Himalayan country’s new constitution. The fact that the Left has gained the upper hand now shows that India did not read the signals right. Now, whether India likes it or not, Beijing will play a bigger role in Nepali politics.
According to The Hindustan Times, China has already given Nepal access to its ports and has been talking about a joint rail link construction. But the most significant move is the possibility of China supplying Nepal with petroleum products, which now come exclusively from India. This means that managing diplomatic relations with Nepal is going to get much more difficult. India’s best bet is to show greater willingness to work with the new government on infrastructure projects and not be seen to be interfering in internal political matters. Given the lakhs of Nepalis who work in India, the country has a stake in maintaining good relations with New Delhi. This is a time for deft diplomatic footwork. Delhi must signal that it is willing to go out of its way to accommodate the concerns of the new government. The possibility of Kathmandu moving closer to Beijing will have several negative consequences for India that must be anticipated and dealt with promptly.
According to Indian newspaper Pioneer Daily, India needs to engage with the Left Alliance sensibly, in both nations' interests.
After the customary congratulations are conveyed to the Left Alliance comprising the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified-Marxist-Leninist) or UML and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) or the Maoists, which is set to come to power with a simple majority once the results of the Parliamentary polls in Nepal are formally notified, New Delhi needs to get going. Not to interfere in any manner, way or form in the affairs of a sovereign, friendly neighbouring country, naturally, but to ensure that both the abiding bond between the peoples of the two countries and the state-to-state Indo-Nepalese relationship continue to deepen regardless of governments coming and going on either side.
That's easier said than done, of course, but there is far too much at stake for New Delhi to stand by if the clearly pro-China UML, led by former and most likely next Prime Minister KP Oli, starts playing Beijing's game in an Indian sphere of influence once again, albeit citing national interest as a cover for ideological affinity though the Maoists, led by former premier Prachanda, have been far more genuine in their stated desire to ensure that Nepal maintains an independent foreign policy that doesn't lean precipitately towards either of its two powerful neighbours. Crucially, this election bears an imprint of legitimacy that makes it imperative for India to proactively engage with the Left Alliance.
According to a Pioneer Daily, the contours of what the terms of engagement can be are clear: First, a line has to be drawn under the perceived Indian support for a Madhesi parties-led economic blockade which turned Nepalese public opinion against India and provided the UML with an opportunity to bat for access to Chinese ports, construction of rail links between Nepal and China and the latter supplying petroleum products to Nepal, all in the garb of decreasing the dependency of a landlocked nation on its southern neighbour for trade and commerce. Secondly, whatever New Delhi's views on the merits or demerits of the new Constitution especially in regard to political representations to the Madhesis, Janjatis and Tharus, there are other less public ways of raising them rather than appearing to support mass protests. Thirdly, Kathmandu must be told bluntly there can be no compromise on India's concerns, as a lower riparian country, on hydel power exploitation in Nepal which is also a key component of Beijing's strategy to ostensibly aid Nepal. Fourthly, India's soft power outreach must be enhanced and examples such as India as first responder to the April 2015 earthquake must be kept alive in public memory. Lastly, instead of wasting time trying to give a fillip to the people-to-people contacts strategy with a failed state and antagonistic people in Pakistan, India would be far better served deploying such efforts vis-à-vis its Himalayan neighbour where a common Indic cultural heritage, an open border and Nepalese nationals living and working in India besides being able to serve in the Indian Army are all far more indicative of a special relationship which is worth preserving.