India has little option but to engage with Oli and keep him in good humour given his electoral mandate and the grip on power.
New Delhi: At a time when India’s relations with its neighbours have hit a rough patch, Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Oli’s three-day visit beginning Friday is pivotal, especially when Oli is in the midst of attempting two major shifts that affect India — both internal and external.
Oli’s maiden visit is also significant given the tense relations between New Delhi and him as well as his perceived proximity to China, which has worried India greatly.
Internally, Oli is moving towards complete consolidation of Communist/Left parties. He is perhaps the first Nepali PM in as many as 25 years to wield such power, with his party in alliance with the Maoists sweeping the elections held late last year. With this, Oli is all set to establish a complete grip over state institutions and concentrate power, while also ensuring domination of hill upper castes in the country’s polity.
With the electoral mandate and the subsequent grip on power he has, India has little option but to engage with Oli and keep him in good humour, efforts to which extent began a few months ago with Prime Minister Narendra Modi reaching out to him on several occasions and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj visiting Nepal.
Sources said New Delhi’s focus now is to ensure “there are no negative headlines” on the Nepal front in the next year, and the semblance of a cordial equation is maintained.
The other big shift Oli is in the midst of is the external rebalancing. This involves reducing dependence on India, shifting northwards, and enhancing China’s economic engagement and political role in Nepal. It is no secret that Oli has been close to Beijing and it is widely believed the alliance between his party and the Maoists in elections was backed by China.
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India has to make its peace with the fact that under this regime in Nepal, it will be China which will have an upper hand. However, what this visit, along with other forms of engagement, can do is minimise Oli’s discomfort with India and reduce his overt slant towards China.
Moreover, given India’s own friends in Nepal — the Nepali Congress and Madhesi parties — are greatly marginalised both electorally and politically, it has to little option but to keep its equation with Oli at least ostensibly warm.
A different visit
Analysts in Nepal underscore why Oli’s visit is “different” from that of earlier PMs.
“Oli’s visit to India is quite different from previous visits by Nepali PMs. Having won a massive mandate on the basis of a nationalist platform, he will have to demonstrate to his domestic constituency that he is negotiating with India from a position of strength,” said Kathmandu based analyst Aditya Adhikari.
“Oli will therefore make an effort to underscore that under his leadership Nepal will have a foreign policy that is autonomous of India,” added Adhikari, author of The Bullet and the Ballot Box: The Story of Nepal’s Maoist Revolution.
It will also be interesting to see how Oli juggles both India and China. To the former, he has promised to take care of its security interests, while promising investments to the latter, and both are bound to intersect at some point.
According to experts, India is reconciling to Nepal’s new regime that is friendly to China “on its own terms” and Oli is already taking care to tread this line carefully and maintain a balance.
“India is trying to reconcile with this pro-China regime in Nepal on its own terms — that Oli does not play the nationalist card against it and does not use China to extract undue concessions from India,” said S.D. Muni, Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and a former diplomat.
“How this plays out will be known only after the visit. But Oli is also doing the balancing act. One, he refused to go to China immediately, as was the buzz. Two, he has accepted to make India his first destination of foreign visit (since becoming PM),” Muni said.
“This is a beginning. As far as Communist consolidation in Nepal is concerned, nothing is permanent. Although China would definitely want it to be consolidated permanently,” he added.
What, however, will be keenly watched is how India positions itself with respect to Nepal’s new Constitution. In a major point of contention with Oli, India had backed the demands by Madhesis for amending the Constitution to address what they perceived as inequalities towards them. India has changed that position, but whether it officially and unequivocally welcomes the Constitution finally will define a key contour of this visit.
“The issue of the Constitution is now in the past. India has already indirectly endorsed the Constitution and has tactically dropped the Madhesh issue,” Muni said.
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