In October 2002, when Shyam Saran, then India’s ambassador to Indonesia, was appointed envoy to Nepal, then National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra told him that his mandate was to bring the monarchy and political parties together to “neutralise the Maoists”. The worry in South Block was a possible “Red Corridor” into India.
This was a little more than a year after the infamous 2001 Narayanhiti Palace massacre in Kathmandu, which left 10 members of the royal family dead and Nepal’s monarchical polity in chaos. Saran was India’s ambassador in Kathmandu for just 22 months before he became foreign secretary, but India’s priorities changed.
“What began as a valiant and mostly frustrating attempt to promote accord between the mainstream political parties and King Gyanendra ended with us switching to a strategy of bringing the political parties together with the Maoists to neutralise an autocratic monarchy instead,” Saran wrote in his magisterial 2017 book How India Sees the World: Kautilya to the 21st Century.
When the facts on the ground change, countries and leaders have to change their priorities as well. So, as India now watches with a sense of disquiet that Nepal’s elections, held between November and December, have been won by the “Left Alliance” led by New Delhi’s friend-turned-foe K P Sharma Oli, it must reinvent its strategy — just like Saran did more than a decade ago, to accommodate the Maoists.
Oli, during his last visit to India in February 2016 (the only one as the Prime Minister of Nepal) had sought to repair the damage caused in the relationship. During that trip, he described the acrimony between India and Nepal since September 2015 as “misunderstandings”, and said that the “main mission” behind his visit to India was to “clear the misunderstanding” and take ties to the same level as in 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi had visited Nepal. That “misunderstanding” was not an ordinary one.
Nepal was faced with a massive economic and humanitarian crisis from September to December, 2015. The reason was the infamous blockade at a crucial crossing on the border with India, which stopped fuel and food supplies to landlocked Nepal. The impact scarred the Nepalese. While Kathmandu blamed India for the blockade, New Delhi sat by quietly, making no efforts to ameliorate the situation, instead citing the law and order situation in border areas which didn’t guarantee safe passage of trucks laden with fuel and essential supplies.
This blockade brought back memories of another blockade that had occurred in 1989 during Rajiv Gandhi’s term, when a similar negative leverage was used after Nepal’s King Birendra imported anti-aircraft missiles from China. The blockade then had lasted for a year, from March 1989 until April 1990.
Later, New Delhi’s hurried intervention in Nepal’s constitutional process, by its support to Sushil Koirala against Oli in 2015, and by encouraging Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ to defect and align with the Nepali Congress in 2016, led to Oli’s rise. In the last two years, Kathmandu’s political class, led by Oli and others, used the blockade to rouse anti-India sentiments, playing the China card during political campaigning. With the Left Alliance in power, there will almost certainly be a more pronounced tilt towards Beijing. Both Oli and Prachanda have indicated this in their public statements.
The Chinese, on their part, have been building a number of highways from the Tibetan side into Nepal. The Tibet railway has now been extended from Lhasa to Shigatse, and could make its way to Kathmandu. While India’s plans are moving at a glacial pace, Kathmandu’s new regime may be tempted to play along to become a part of the Chinese One Belt One Road (OBOR) project. It will be important for India to caution its interlocutors in Nepal to not walk into the debt traps that Sri Lanka, Maldives and even Pakistan have entered while dealing with Beijing.
While China will be the elephant in the room, New Delhi will have to stop playing political favourites in Kathmandu and engage with the widest possible political spectrum. Above all, it must repair the trust deficit with Nepal and its leadership. Saran writes of an apt solution, “The tendency in India is to regard Nepal’s dependence on India for transit as leverage against it.
But any exercise of this leverage only ends up intensifying anti-Indian sentiments… It reinforces the sense of siege that Nepalis feel — ‘India-locked’, as they call it… a better approach would be to offer Nepal “national treatment” on the Indian transport network, allowing them the use of our roads and ports on the same terms as for Indian citizens and companies. The effort should be to convince Nepal that they are “India-open”, not “India-locked”.” It’s time for Delhi to make Nepal feel “India-open”.