If the hallmark of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Pakistan policy has been flip-flops, the government's Nepal policy has been a crowning failure.
Let's talk about Nepal here. Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli of Nepal returned on Sunday after a week-long visit to China. Among the many agreements Oli signed there, the one that merits special mention is the Transit Trade Treaty giving Nepal access to the Chinese ports. He also signed an expected fuel deal under which Nepal can import about one-third of its gasoline requirements from China. It will help Nepal reduce its dependence on India, so far the sole supplier, for fuel.
The agreement amounts to a slap on the face of India and its policy towards Nepal. Though putting infrastructures such as road connectivity between Nepal and China in place for transportation of fuel and goods will take time, given the difficult terrain, it's a start that India will rue.
Nepal as a sovereign country does have the right to carry on its independent trade with China. But here it is a case of India literally pushing her traditional ally and friend into the arms of arch-rival China.
At the root of the current frosty ties between India and Nepal is the fuel blockade suffered by Nepal. Nobody can still understand as to why the blockade was imposed to disrupt supply of fuel, medicine and other commodities during Madhesis' agitation. Nepal went without fuel during bitter winter months, schools and colleges remained shut for shortage of gasoline and people endured sufferings for lack of medicine during the five-month disruption.
Nepal squarely blamed India for imposing an undeclared blockade to force Nepal to concede to Madhesis' demand for better representation in the federal structure proposed in the new constitution. Madhesis, with over 40 per cent of total Nepal's population and close ethnic and blood ties with the people in India, feared further marginalisation in the Nepalese power structure if the new constitution was adopted.
India failed to intercede with the government in Nepal on time to address the Madhesis' concerns. Madhesis went on a warpath bringing the entire Nepali plains or Terai region to a grinding halt.
|Nepalese students in a protest shouting anti-Indian slogans in Kathmandu, September 28, 2015.|
India acquiesced in the protest, making no efforts whatsoever to keep the supply line ticking. India put the blame on Nepal for failing to clear the roadblocks put in force by Madhesis to ensure the supply was restored. However, Nepal was clear on its stand and maintained that New Delhi was responsible for the blockade.
To meet the fuel shortage, Nepal signed an agreement with China for urgent supply of fuel as India stood rigid. Many believe Prime Minister Modi sacrificed warm relations with Nepal for the narrow interests of the BJP in the Bihar elections. The BJP feared that the government's perceived anti-Madhesis' stand could adversely affect the party's electoral outcomes in Bihar.
Whether Madhesis' interests or electoral realpolitik, India's relations with Nepal were severely damaged. The frost in bilateral relations was visible when the Nepalese PM visited India in February after the Madhesis had withdrawn the agitation and blockade had been lifted. True to the tradition, Oli came to India before undertaking a visit to China. But the extent of damage in the relations could be gauged by the fact that India and Nepal failed to issue a joint statement at the end of Oli's visit.
In contrast, Nepal-China joint statement issued at the end of Oli's visit to Beijing crows about the two countries' evolving relations. Oli described China as "all-weather friend." Of late, another term that is being used to describe their ties is "special relations". These expressions were reserved for India-Nepal relations for decades.
India's relations with Nepal have been a mix of high and low, euphoria and frustration. At their low, Nepal has accused India of acting like "big brother" and neighbourhood "bully" and India has often treated Nepal condescendingly. But it has never sunk so low. Unfortunately, India acted as a bully during the Madhesis' agitation.
|Nepal PM KP Sharma Oli with China's Premier Li Keqiang during Oli's China visit.|
The four-month blockade awoke Nepal to hard realities that as a landlocked country its trade and transit are prisoners of Indian whims and fancies. It has no option but to look to China to get free of the fetters that geography puts on Nepal. India took advantage of the fact that two-thirds of Nepal's trade is with India. Also, more than 90 per cent of Nepal's trade with other countries transit through India.
Besides trade and economy, there is strategic aspects of relations too that China is exploring through its engagement with Nepal. By building closer ties with Nepal, China hopes to use Nepal as a lever against India when the need arises. China is firing a warning shot to India to keep off the South China Sea islands disputes and telling India not to enter into crosshairs with direct Chinese strategic interests.
This is what a commentator in Global Times of China said, "New Delhi should wake up to the fact that Nepal is a sovereign country, not a vassal of India. Instead of being forced into becoming a strategic barrier against China, Nepal should be better treated and act as a bridge between Beijing and New Delhi."
China talks of Nepal acting as a bridge realising that Nepal's dependence on India and its ties with India can't be overturned any time soon. However, Nepal's role as a bridge between Beijing and New Delhi is one aspect of India-Nepal relations. The more important aspect is the old friendship and ties, which advantage, unfortunately, India has frittered away by trying to arm-twist Nepal.
An editorial in Kathmandu's The Himalayan Times has aptly summed up Oli's visit to China. It says, "The accords with China will greatly help Nepal diversify its trade and considerably reduce its economic vulnerabilities."
Modi dispensation has so insensitively ignored the vulnerabilities of a friend to India's own strategic disadvantage.