Once bitten twice shy. This is what Prime Minister Narendra Modi might have thought about his Nepali counterpart K.P. Sharma Oli when he returned to power in 2018 for the second time in the Himalayan nation. But Modi could not have been further from the truth, because like it or not, Oli did do the unthinkable last week, shaking the very base of the PM’s Neighbourhood First policy.
The Oli government was able to successfully pass a Constitutional Amendment Bill to approve its new map that includes the disputed areas of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura, in the lower House of its Parliament. The Bill is now in Nepal’s upper House and is expected to pass there as well by Wednesday.
Modi made a good start
In 2014, when Narendra Modi came to power, he made it clear to his Bharatiya Janata Party and to the country that foreign policy will reign supreme under his tenure even as he invited SAARC leaders to his swearing-in ceremony in May that year, which included Nepal’s then-Prime Minister Sushil Koirala.
Subsequently, Modi went to Nepal in August 2014 and lapped up heaps of accolades for embarking on a bilateral trip to the neighbouring country — the first by anIndian prime minister in 17 years, after I.K. Gujral’s visit in June 1997. Indian PMs who visited Nepal during this period went only to attend multilateral meetings.
Accompanied by a 101-member delegation, Modi’s 2014 visit was celebrated as a massive success.
He not only became the first foreign leader to address Nepal’s Constituent Assembly-cum-Parliament, but also raised expectations when he hugged PM Sushil Koirala and promised to settle the outstanding issue of the Nepal-India boundary matters “once and for all”.
During this visit, Modi also met his godson Jeet Bahadur, whom the PM was apparently looking after since 1998. This was seen as a bonding factor between India and Nepal.
Both sides also lauded the formation of the Boundary Working Group (BWG), which was entrusted with the mandate of “construction, restoration and repair of boundary pillars”.
India and Nepal directed their respective foreign secretaries “to work on the outstanding boundary issues, including Kalapani and Susta”, while New Delhi urged Kathmandu to sign the “agreed and initialled strip maps of about 98 per cent of the boundary.”
But Madhesis issue undid the gains
Fast forward September 2015. Modi and then-Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj expressed their deep resentment for the new Constitution that the Nepali government released that year, under Oli’s first tenure as the PM.
New Delhi was upset because the new Constitution, which is Nepal’s seventh, did not cover the demands of people from the Terai region – inhabited by Madhesis and Tharus – something that India had asked Nepal through then–foreign secretary S. Jaishankar, who visited the country with this agenda as part of the ‘SAARC Yatra’ initiative.
As a result, a massive border blockade by the Madhesis and Nepal’s other ethnic minorities took place, which allegedly had India’s backing. This marked the lowest point in India-Nepal ties.
This was a déjà vu of the 1989 blockade that took place between India and Nepal under former PM Rajiv Gandhi when New Delhi had reportedly shut down 19 of the 21 border points with the country, then under King Birendra.
According to a former Indian ambassador to Kathmandu, who spoke on condition of anonymity, while Nepal has “never forgiven India” for the 1989 border blockade, it nevertheless resulted in the dismantling of the panchayat system there, and finally, the overthrow of the monarchy and restoration of democracy.
Talks that never took place
Since 2014, Nepal had been constantly pushing India to hold talks with it over the unsettled border dispute.
In May 2015, after India and China decided to use Lipulekh as a trade route, Nepal protested, urging the Modi government to pursue foreign secretary-level talks. However, owing to Nepal’s internal problems, New Delhi remained silent.
In 2016, Modi’s demonetisation again rattled the relationship between the two countries, leading to an India-Nepal currency deadlock. India had delayed the exchange of its demonetised currency from Nepal, citing Kathmandu’s inaction on its demands for the Madhesis.
China, meanwhile, had started making inroads in Nepal. It offered to help Kathmandu and even convinced it to become part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative by including the Trans-Himalayan Multidimensional Connectivity Network, which began in 2013.
With Oli coming to power for the second time, ties began to solidify between Nepal and China, even as relations remained frosty between New Delhi and Kathmandu.
With PM Modi’s focus shifting from Neighbourhood First policy to the singular desire of punishing Pakistan, Oli was able to freely promote his nationalist agenda, thereby fanning anti-India rhetoric.
A report by Eminent Persons Group (EPG) on Nepal-India Relations was also prepared. But India never gave any importance to it.
During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Nepal in October 2019, on his way back from India, Beijing made Kathmandu its strategic partner, a recognition that the latter had until then only given to India under the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship.
Since then, India has been rapidly losing grip over Nepal, which is now days away from changing its Constitution for adopting the new map.
Going back on Neighbourhood First
Ever since India released its new political map in November 2019, Kathmandu has made at least four official requests through diplomatic channels to settle the border dispute, but India was busy looking the other way.
Although India has said, albeit unofficially, that it made an offer to hold the foreign secretary-level talks through videoconferencing before the Constitutional Amendment Bill was tabled earlier this month, Nepal has flatly rejected such claims.
Even if one is to believe the Indian narrative, it was too little and too late.
When Nepal announces the new map before the United Nations, India will be forced to say that it does not accept such “artificial enlargement” of territory, thus opening up a new front of challenges with the Himalayan nation.
For India, operationalising the new Kailash-Mansarovar route via Lipulekh will be impossible, as China will now insist that India settle the matter bilaterally with Nepal, which is not going to be easy.
Modi, perhaps, needs to come up with a Neighbourhood First 2.0 to counter the growing challenges in India’s vicinity, be it from Pakistan, Sri Lanka or the ‘trustworthy’ Nepal. Factoring China as a constant in the new regional diplomatic equations wouldn’t be a bad idea either. And for that the only solution is: Talks. The idea of shying away from talks will prove to more challenging than ever in a post-Covid South Asia.
Views are personal.