Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s India visit will reverberate in Nepal’s political discourse for a while. India has been suspicious that Nepal’s rulers always play the “China card” against India: Dahal’s predecessor, K.P. Oli, played it to the hilt. Dahal, who has travelled to Delhi in less than a month of his succeeding Oli as the prime minister, risks giving credence to the Indian perception with his claims to promote “balanced” relations with Nepal’s two neighbours.
This time around, in addition to the usual discourse or reaction that may include allegations of “sell-out to India”, how China will view the outcome of Dahal’s India visit has much significance. Did Dahal do anything to neutralise the understanding that Oli had developed with China which included access to Chinese ports and beyond? In other words, will China be worried or unhappy with Nepal for allegedly playing the “India card” against it? Such perceptions can have a political fallout, since the government is headed by a minority party and is answerable to a strong opposition in parliament.
China watchers say Nepal’s northern neighbour’s displeasure is understandable since Dahal had broken the Left alliance that Beijing thought would be a bulwark against India’s traditional influence, which has been visibly on the wane in the past decade. If Oli’s departure from the PM’s office was a cause for celebration in India, it was perceived as a loss in China. President Xi Jinping’s was expected to visit Nepal in October. By all indications, it remains suspended in the changed circumstances. All that Beijing would say is “China and Nepal are in close communication” and that relevant information will be released in due course.
However, more visits from India to Nepal are expected in the coming weeks, especially since both sides have declared that bilateral relations are on “track”. President Pranab Mukherjee is expected to visit Kathmandu in early November, the first visit by an Indian head of state in 20 years. Dahal has also invited Prime Minister Narendra Modi to visit pilgrim centres like Janakpur, Lumbini and Muktinath in Mustang along the Tibet border, places that Modi was to visit during his last visit to Nepal, but got cancelled reportedly due to some “misunderstanding” between Indian and Nepali authorities. By inviting Modi to visit these places, Dahal has conveyed to the former RSS pracharak that he respects “Hindu sentiments”. More importantly, he also wants Indian involvement in the development of Lumbini as a world class “peace city”, a project China has shown interest in.
Dahal did everything he could to give India a sense of comfort in the aftermath of the embittered bilateral relations. However, the fact is Nepal’s political instability and the frequency with which governments are changing may impact bilateral agreements. Besides, China’s interest and involvement in economic, social, technical and developmental sectors in Nepal will continue, and impact local politics.
Experts on Nepal-China relations, nevertheless, feel China should realise Nepal’s geo-political reality, and not press Nepal to be a partner in “strategic designs”. However, a politically unstable Nepal, with distinct western influence on its politics and governance, independently or in alliance with India, is sure to invite China’s attention. Trailokya Aryal, a commentator, says, “Nepal is a country that the Chinese side knows is very important to its security concerns.” In other words, China has the same concern about Nepal that India has.
Dahal was accorded a warm welcome by the Modi government. He also had “cordial” exchanges with his more “natural allies” — Sitaram Yechury, Sharad Yadav, D.P. Tripathi, and of course President Mukherjee — who were largely responsible for bringing the Maoists to the centrestage of politics.
Two developments will be crucial to Indo-Nepal relations in the coming days: One, the course of Nepal’s internal politics and, two, whether the BJP government can get the opposition to support its Nepal policy. New Delhi needs to focus on the execution of developmental projects the countries had agreed about earlier. If India seeks to involve in power politics in Kathmandu, something that has made India unpopular in Nepal recently, it will only lead to a loss of gains from Dahal’s visit.