Nepal should have paused to reflect on the wisdom of rushing to its parliament for a constitutional amendment to revise the new map of the country, which now officially includes the areas of Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura and Kalapani, territory that is part of the Uttarakhand state’s Pithoragarh district. The constitutional stamp on Nepal’s claim will make it doubly difficult to resolve the issue when the two sides sit down to talk about it, as they must and surely will.
Nepal and India are bound in manifold ways, and Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli should have exercised circumspection rather than plunge into this brinkmanship, but it seems he let narrow political interests take the upper hand. His term in office was on the rocks a month ago, and he was able to retrieve it just in time through the activism of Beijing’s envoy to Kathmandu, who patched up differences between him and his rivals in the Nepal Communist Party, Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda” and Madhav Kumar Nepal. Yet this careless attitude towards what is unarguably Nepal’s most important and vital relationship in South Asia is perplexing. With no other country does Nepal have the kind of ties that it has with India, not even with China. Leveraging ties with one side to extract benefits from another is legitimate diplomacy, but also a fine art. It is useful only as long as the balance can be maintained.
For India, the task is now cut out. Delhi was unwise to have kept Nepal hanging after it complained about the November 2019 map that was published mainly to show the new arrangements in Jammu & Kashmir. The Oli government reiterated its concerns last month when India inaugurated the road to Lipulekh pass on the border with China. There is an element of disingenuity in Nepal raising this post-facto objection to a road that was years in the making, in plain sight. But Delhi must look beyond this and act to bring down tensions. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi first came to power, his “neighbourhood first” policy signalled that his government was preparing a substantive new outreach in South Asia that would address other countries’ economic, political and other concerns vis a vis their bigger neighbour. Sadly, the initial promise of that policy fizzled out quickly, and relations with Nepal were an early casualty, over a blockade of that country that could not have lasted all the months that it did without the tacit approval of Delhi. The ministry of external affairs must now dial into the large reserves of goodwill that it continues to have in Kathmandu, to schedule an early high-level meeting of both sides, instead of putting it off for “after COVID”.
After all, India has been engaged with China through both diplomatic and military channels over the LAC standoff in Ladakh. Nothing should come in the way of similarly urgent engagement with Kathmandu. It may need Prime Minister Modi to signal that such engagement has political backing at the highest level.
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