Last week, Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli laid the foundation of Pokhara international airport, Nepal’s second, being built with Chinese assistance and soft loan. Oli was joined by Maoist chief Prachanda and all major party leaders in a show of appreciation for the Chinese initiative likely to be completed in four years. And in a strange coincidence, this happened during a phase when Nepal-India relations have nosedived like never before.
Nothing would illustrate it more clearly than the “serves-you-right” response so visible in Nepal’s power corridor and intelligentsia when the Organisation of Islamic Countries’ resolution on Jammu and Kashmir was challenged by India with a warning not to “interfere in its internal matters in future”. Nepal authorities had made a similar protest when India and the European Union had jointly asked Nepal to address inadequacies in its constitution at the end of last month.
China making much inroads into Nepal is something even the Indian authorities have come to acknowledge. But what divides the Indian response is whether it’s at the cost of India’s image, influence and interest in its crucially important neighbourhood. Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar sarcastically “congratulated” Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj for having successfully “pushed Nepal towards China”. In a piece with many “dos and don’ts”, Prem Shankar Jha suggested that India shouldn’t be treating Nepal like a “protectorate”. But the senior babus (some retired by now), who authored and literally dictated the course and agenda of Nepali politics since 2005 — with UPA political bosses visibly indifferent — continue to harp that “anti-Indianism” in Nepal is the doing of only a small group of “hill elites” confined to Kathmandu. That only shows the gap between perception and reality as anti-Indianism is visibly widespread from the hills to plains.
Oli and the ruling coalition dominated by the Left are getting positive responses from the people across the country for having stood up to India, mainly for what it has “done without accountability in Nepal’s internal politics”. Although this doesn’t guarantee Oli’s survival in power for long, he’s praised by many for his efforts to oppose the “outside role” (that is, India’s) in Nepal’s politics and constitution-making. In fact, Nepal’s ruling coalition — which had continued to give some benefit of doubt, particularly to Modi, till recently — didn’t take kindly to the EU-India resolution on Nepal’s constitution in Brussels at Modi’s initiative.
The foundation laying of the Pokhara airport — a project that was agreed upon at the prime ministerial level during Oli’s visit to Beijing in March — was formalised with a rare show of solidarity among Nepal’s political parties. Nepal is already considering waving the visa fee for the Chinese.
Indian immigration, on the other hand, has already started “stamping” Nepali passports at airports, diluting the spirit of open boarders and hassle-free movement for all these years. The relation is clearly losing the much talked about “special” component. The two sides have hardly begun any exercise to address the misunderstandings and the visible fallouts.
Yet, Nepal’s leaders are more confused about how to go about this, since they have been the biggest beneficiaries of the “India-dictated changes”. They have been able to exercise absolute power without accountability — more than the king(s) did in the past.
When India led the initiative for international support for the political movement in Nepal in April 2006, it had two ostensible concerns: First, since King Gyanendra was playing the China card, the Maoists and other key parties, minus the monarchy, would be a more favourable experiment. Second, India would for a long time have the lead role, if not a monopoly, in directing Nepal’s politics. Both have proven wrong.