India-Nepal relations have touched an unfortunate low with a spat over territory that was barely in the public domain before last year. The allusion by the Army Chief, General M M Naravane, of a China hand behind Nepal’s new assertiveness, did not help. It made the issue seem bigger by making it appear as if Nepal has no mind of its own, provoked more anti-India nationalism in that country, and has helped Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli, who is perceived in Delhi as pro-China, to shore up his fraying domestic popularity. Nepal’s claim over Kalapani is not new. It came up before this most recently when India published a new map in November 2019 to show the August 5 bifurcation of Jammu & Kashmir. The new map showed Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura as part of Pithoragarh district in Uttarakhand state. Nepal had protested strongly then against India’s “unilateral” act, referring to an “understanding” between the two prime ministers that the issue would be resolved through negotiations. There were street protests in Nepal at the time. There were more protests earlier this month when India inaugurated a road up to Lipulekh Pass on the border with China, even as Indian and Chinese soldiers eyeballed each other in Ladakh. Nepal has now retaliated with a new map that includes all the territory that it claims, which Delhi has described as “unjustified cartographic assertion”. Oli, for his part, played to the gallery by describing India as a “virus more dangerous than coronavirus”.
What this war of maps and words really points to is the steady deterioration of the India-Nepal relationship that dates back to 2015, when Delhi’s publicly aired unhappiness over the new Nepal Constitution, and its tacit support to a six-month-long blockade of the landlocked country went a long way in shaping the anti-India sentiment prevalent in Nepal today. Contrary to what sections of the RSS and BJP had imagined — that the coming to power of the BJP would cement ties between two Hindu majority nations — the old bonhomie between the political elites has all but evaporated. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2018 visit to Nepal could not undo the damage done early in his tenure. It is not surprising that it was during the 2015-16 blockade that Oli, who was prime minister then too, began looking to China for assistance. What has been more difficult to understand is Delhi’s apparent bullheadedness in dealing with a smaller neighbour.
India’s relations with Nepal go back deep in history. It is only when Delhi stops looking at Nepal purely through a security prism, and at bilateral relations only as transactional and part of a zero sum game with China, can Delhi turn around the potential of this multifaceted relationship to the advantage of both nations. Foreign secretary-level talks with Kathmandu were to be held after the pandemic passes. It would be better to hold them at once.