This week as the Narendra Modi government celebrates seven years in power, the biggest change in its foreign policy has not been with the US or Pakistan or Bangladesh or China – but Nepal.
What was once a close neighbour to which Prime Minister Modi paid his third foreign policy visit in August 2014 – and brought the house down when he spoke to its parliament in Nepali – has been subject to so many twists and turns that it’s no longer clear whether New Delhi is trying to influence Kathmandu or whether Nepal’s PM K.P. Oli is manipulating the Indian leadership.
Nepal’s ‘Louis XIV’ headache
As Jaishankar reaches the US, there’s complete silence in Delhi over the manner in which Nepal’s prime minister K.P. Oli has been mauling the constitution and twisting its clauses and conventions so as to hang on to power. In recent weeks, with a little help from president Bidya Bhandari (Kathmandu Post described her as “a sidekick to the PM”), Oli is back as PM after losing a vote of confidence in parliament in early May and for the second time in six months, recommending the dissolution of parliament. (The last time he did this, in December 2020, Nepal’s supreme court threw out the move.)
The irony is that less than a year ago, Delhi and Oli were ranged on different sides of the horizon. Oli had insulted the Ashoka Chakra, India’s national emblem, asking whether its motto was a “hegemonic Singhamave Jayate or a peaceable Satyamev jayate.” His remarks in parliament came in the context of a unilateral cartographic incorporation of Indian territories such as Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Lipulekh. Nepal’s map was changed as a result and Delhi saw red.
Cut to the present, and to India’s stubborn silence around Oli’s shenanigans. The Nepali press is in uproar, with the popular Nepali-language Kantipur daily Monday publishing a cartoon of Oli as king, complete with feather and pigeon-egg-sized emeralds in the crown (Oli has reacted furiously, telling the press it has no respect for democracy.) The Kathmandu Post is likening Oli to Louis XIV, insisting that the French emperor’s declaration “l’Etat c’est moi (I am the State)” applies to the Nepali PM.
The Kathmandu Post’s Monday editorial read: “The President and the prime minister have won in their unconstitutional stratagem while the country has lost. In their pursuit of excellence in Machiavellian treachery, Bhandari and Oli have …wrecked political culture…President Bhandari has set a benchmark for how not to become a pawn at the hands of an authoritarian comrade….”
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Why India is quiet
Question is, why is Delhi not helping protect the constitution it laboured over with the Nepalis for so many years, since the 2006 ‘jan andolan’ – when Indian pressure ensured that the Nepalese monarch caved in and stood down so that Nepal could become a sovereign, democratic republic — and which finally saw the light of day in 2015?
Why is Delhi not asking Oli to temper himself, like it did last year, when Army chief M.M. Naravane let fly that Oli’s tempestuous action to unilaterally “take” Indian territory was motivated by the Chinese next door?
Conversations with several political observers and Nepal-watchers in Delhi and Kathmandu, both Indian and Nepali, indicate that there’s a complex game afoot.
First, it seems as if India has decided to adopt a super-pragmatic approach with Nepal – meaning, it will not take sides in Nepal’s internal politics. So Oli can continue to do what he is doing, including wrecking the constitution, but India will not interfere. The argument is that this is Nepal’s constitution, not India’s, so if the Nepalis want to destroy something for short-term political gain, then that is their problem.
Second, the Indian observers recognise that the small matter of the changed Nepali maps, passed by no less than its parliament, could be a stumbling block in the improvement of the bilateral relationship. But these observers insist that while “this issue sticks in the throat,” it is after all “just one issue” in a whole spectrum, and that it’s time to move on.
Third, is the question of when this shift in policy began to take place. Three months after the map row in May 2020, Oli reached out to greet PM Modi on the occasion of India’s Independence Day, to “clear the air.” That seems to have been the first straw. In October, India’s external intelligence chief, head of R&AW, Samant Goel, travelled to Kathmandu to meet Oli – although at the time it had seemed as if Goel and his colleague Arun Jain had been sent to admonish Oli on the map issue, which had so riled Delhi.
On the eve of Goel’s visit, Oli ordered the withdrawal of school textbooks that portrayed the new map; within days of meeting Goel, Oli greeted India on Dussehra online with the old map of the country.
Goel’s visit was followed by several high-profile visits. Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla and Army Chief Gen M.M. Naravane travelled to Kathmandu in quick succession in November, while the head of the BJP foreign affairs cell Vijai Chauthaiwale went in December.
Many in Nepal believe that Chauthaiwale, a close confidante of home minister Amit Shah, is the new Ram Madhav – a reference to the RSS general secretary who, during the first Modi government, played a big role in the expansion of the India-Nepal relationship.
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A policy change
As for the question of why India has “forgiven” Oli, speculation is rife in Nepal that the Modi government doesn’t anymore want to deal with Pushpa Kamal Dahal, or Prachanda, the head of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist-Centre); or with the Nepali Congress-led coalition, which has close ties with India’s Congress, and which Monday went to the supreme court asking it to invalidate Oli’s recommendation to dissolve parliament.
Nepali politicians opposed to Oli believe he is wooing PM Modi with his own Hindutva agenda — by becoming the first Nepali Communist leader to visit the Pashupatinath temple and order gold ornaments for the deity, provoking comments that he may be pushing for a pro-Hindu and pro-monarchy constituency; by welcoming the merger of pro-monarchy Rastriya Prajatantra Party leaders with his own; by installing idols of Ram, Sita and Laxman in Chitwan’s Ayodhyapuri this Ram Navami and simultaneously expelling dissidents from his own party.
A second view is that India tried hard to persuade Prachanda, Oli’s key opponent, to drop his friendship with Beijing, but that he didn’t agree. It’s not clear if Oli, whose friendship with the Chinese ambassador as well as with Chinese politicians has been public these past years, has now agreed to align himself with India’s view of China’s expanding influence in South Asia.
What is clear is that India has once again changed its policy on Nepal. Does this mean Delhi may be prepared to overhaul the hard-earned gains accrued by the new republic over the last 15 years, when it transformed itself from a monarchy into a secular democratic nation, perhaps even at the expense of the constitution?
The jury, worryingly so, seems to be out at the moment.
The author is a consulting editor. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)