At an event organised at the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu to commemorate International Women’s Day earlier this year, China’s ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi wowed the female audience, which included Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli’s wife Radhika Shakya. Yanqi shed her diplomatic avatar, donned a lehenga-choli with gold embellishment and performed a Nepali dance in tune with a popular Nepali folk song, which went something like this: ‘If only I could fly like a bird/Under the wide, open sky.’
Chinese diplomacy in Kathmandu
Hou Yanqi’s soaring popularity is the talk of town these days. A key part of her job, of course, is to wean Nepal away from its civilisational embrace of India and offer the charms of Beijing, instead of the all-too-familiar tramping grounds like Delhi and Banaras. By all accounts, she is succeeding rather well.
Barely a month ago the Chinese ambassador persuaded the faction-ridden Nepali Communist Party to come together, swallow their dislike of PM Oli and give him another chance to govern. Oli – by attempting to change Nepal’s map, incorporating a large swathe of Indian territory, including Kalapani, and insulting India’s national emblem Ashoka Chakra – has not just outwitted India, but also exceeded China’s wildest dreams.
Where is India?
But there’s a larger question at stake here. Why has India, with its historical, cultural, religious and language affinities with Nepal that transcend the past and reaffirm the present, hardly ever got its Nepal policy right?
Oli will surely go down in history, just like Prime Minister Mohan Shamsher Jung Bahadur Rana in 1950, to play the “saviour of Nepal” card and outfox India. This time around, though, India has probably lost Nepal of its own volition. Between feting US President Donald Trump in February, obsessing the return of a few score thousand Indians under the #VandeBharat Mission, and now scrambling to get the Chinese to abide by their own promises of respecting the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, Delhi has had no time for Kathmandu.
Nepal’s ambassador to India Nilamber Acharya has called foreign secretary Harsh Shringla several times, but to no avail. As for External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, there have been larger fish to fry – and not just in the Indian Ocean.
Delhi’s flip flops
The biggest irony is that New Delhi has completely changed its Nepal policy, not once but twice, in the last six years since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power. When he went to Kathmandu for the first time in 2014, and began his address to the Nepali parliament with a few words in Nepali, Modi brought the house down. Within a year, that bonhomie was to turn sour when New Delhi supported the Madhesi political parties in the Terai region to push for a far more inclusive agenda that had once held such promise during the 2006 ‘Jan Andolan’ movement.
But instead of letting Nepal’s fractious politics figure out its own future, India tried to push Kathmandu’s upper caste elite, the “Bahun-Chettris” or the “Brahmin-Kshatriya” class, to share power with other backward classes of the Terai, which shares a border with Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The new policy was imbued with a high moral fibre, an idealism that had its roots in India’s own affirmative policies for lower castes and tribal folk. This was Delhi’s first big change.
So when, in 2015, Terai’s political parties blockaded all goods coming in via the India land border, in order to put pressure on Kathmandu to listen to its long-suppressed demands, Delhi’s long arm of support could hardly remain hidden. But the four-month-long protest spun out of control and more than 50 people were killed. In the mess that unfolded, India had a choice to make: abandon principle for realism, and go back to breaking bread with the upper castes that have always ruled Nepal, whether Communist – like Oli – or middle-of-the-road parties such as the Nepali Congress.
The more difficult choice would have been to stay with the Madhesis and fight the long diplomatic battle for a truly inclusive democracy.
Modi’s India rightly picked the first, arguing that it was not in the business of bringing political parties to power. Abandoning the Madhesis and returning to the Brahmin elite was the second turnaround in Delhi’s Nepal policy.
The anti-India sentiment
By 2017, though, Oli was barnstorming the countryside on anti-India slogans that catapulted him to power in December 2017. Modi sent then foreign minister Sushma Swaraj to Kathmandu to make peace. Bharatiya Janata Party general secretary Ram Madhav also kept open a vigorous back-channel. The newly-appointed ambassador in Kathmandu, Manjeev Singh Puri’s orders were to appease Oli & Co.
Unfortunately, India forgot Modi’s basic political mantra: there are no permanent friends or enemies in power. But India’s diplomats were so keen on making nice with Oli, that they forgot India’s oldest friends in Nepal — the Nepali Congress, left out in the cold, abandoned, hurt. The party had its revenge last November, after India redid its maps in the wake of dilution of Article 370 to scrap Jammu and Kashmir’s special status. It was the Nepali Congress that taunted PM K.P. Oli’s inability to save the country from India’s “big brother designs” on Lipulekh and Kalapani.
Today, the Nepali Congress is at the forefront of supporting Oli’s campaign to change Nepal’s map as it hypes the nationalist agenda. The Madhesis, once again, are left in the lurch – marginalised by both the Nepali Congress and Oli’s party. The “Bahun-Chettris” are back to feeling secure – riding high on an anti-India plank.
As for India, things have never been so bad in the neighbourhood in recent years. Pakistan has been an all-weather ally of Beijing for decades, now Hou Yanqi has pushed Oli’s Nepal much deeper into China’s arms.
Meanwhile in Ladakh, trouble across the LAC refuses to subside. As the Chinese trample all over South Asia, Modi’s India is encircled by China more than ever before.
Views are personal.