Successive political establishments in Kathmandu have not been able to resist the temptation to play the China card against New Delhi. It is no secret that some days before the crucial meeting of Nepal Communist Party, Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi held a series of meetings with its senior leaders. Beijing made its concern clear that the ongoing strife within Nepal’s ruling coalition is not in the interest of China, which has invested heavily in Nepal and needs Kathmandu to create as many pin pricks for New Delhi as possible.
The Nepal map controversy appears to be both the country’s 68-year-old Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli’s need for one-upmanship in his infighting coalition as well as a nod to its powerful neighbour’s instructions.
In his speech in parliament after his recovery from illness, Oli promised to “reclaim at any cost” the Kalapani-Limpiyadhura-Lipulekh area, part of the 1,800-km-long border that India and Nepal share. To add strength to his rhetoric, K.P. Oli managed to get a cabinet nod for the new map of Nepal showing the contested area as part of Nepal’s territory. The new map seems to have been drawn on the basis of a two-century-old Treaty of Sugauli, signed in 1816 between then-British government in India and the Gurkha chiefs in Nepal. Indian army has been posted in the tri-junction since the 1962 War.
Tension began after Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, on 9 May, inaugurated the newly constructed 80-km Kailash Mansarovar Yatra route in Uttarakhand built by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO). Two days after the road was declared open, Nepal’s Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali handed over a “diplomatic note” to Indian Ambassador Vinay Mohan Kwatra protesting the construction of the link road in what Kathmandu claims as disputed territory. According to reports, Nepal is “considering putting up a security post in the area”. This will create further rift leading to unnecessary tension.
But what seems to have ruffled Oli’s ego further is the candid statement by India’s Army Chief General M.M. Naravane that Nepal’s objection to the new road was “at the behest of someone else”, a possible hint at China. Oli countered saying his government was only “articulating a national sentiment and claiming what belongs to the country and not raising the issue under pressure from elsewhere’. But it still doesn’t seem to clear his government’s guilt of acting as a satellite of Beijing.
Creating a viral scene
Not content with the new map statement, Prime Minister Oli made another strange remark that “Indian virus is more lethal than Chinese or Italian virus”. “Those who are coming from India through illegal channels are spreading the virus in the country and some local representatives and party leaders are responsible for bringing in people from India without proper testing,” PM Oli said in his speech last Tuesday in parliament. It is not only false but also unethical on the part of a country’s prime minister to make such an irresponsible statement on the floor of the House.
Out of 21 men residing in a mosque at Chhapkaiya, close to Raxaul border check post in Nepal’s Birgunj, three Indian nationals tested Covid-19 positive on 12 April. This was the first coronavirus case in Province 2, declared one of the three hotspots in the entire country, and it brought the total number of Covid-19 cases detected in Nepal to 12. The rest of the nine patients are Nepali citizens from Kailali, Kanchanpur, Baglung and Kathmandu. The local police are investigating the case of illegal entry but according to a report, these three persons were in Nepal for the last four months. “How did they get infected if they have been in Nepal for the last four months?” an official told The Kathmandu Post.
Nepal reported new Covid-19 cases on 12 May, when 83 cases were reported in a single day, which was attributed to “increase in testing”. It took the national tally to 217, which was still manageable. As of 21 May, Nepal has reported 457 cases, all additions reported from locals, none of whom have been reported to have travelled to India.
Delhi, watch out for conflict in NCP
Fissures are clearly visible in the Nepal Communist Party and the government in Kathmandu. After the Nepal Communist Party meeting early this month, the standing committee of the party was to meet on 7 May, which was postponed. The reason seems to be party chairman K.P. Oli putting his foot down. Two of his recent ordinances have run into controversy with the party’s standing committee members accusing him of issuing them without consulting the party.
The ruling party has 174 seats in the 275-member parliament (121 of CPN-UML and 53 of the Maoist Centre). There is intense faction-fight among these parties and the Maoists have threatened to withdraw support if their demands are not met with. The two ordinances were meant to ease party split and registration but instead ended up uniting the Samajbadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Party Nepal to form the Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP) with 33 members to its credit.
The map issue has also not gone down well within the party with Oli’s bête noire Bamdev Gautam, vice chairman of the Nepal Communist Party, issuing a statement warning the prime minister not to take credit for the new map. Twenty of the 44 standing committee members reportedly held a separate meeting after the scheduled meeting was postponed at the behest of the Prime Minister. All said and done, the present truce seems to be temporary. Sooner or later, the parties supporting the government may press their demand for a change in leadership and bring down the Oli government in order to form a new government under a new leader.
New Delhi will have to closely watch the emerging conflict in Nepal’s ruling party and wait for the outcome. The map controversy seems more of Oli’s one-upmanship rather than a serious security threat. But at the same time, New Delhi will have to impress upon Kathmandu the need to go back to the discussion table soon after the crisis of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is over.
The author is a member of the National Executive Committee of the BJP and former editor of Organiser. Views are personal.