The Nepali Prime Minister, Mr. KP Sharma Oli is a classic example of a friend turned foe. Before 2015, in Nepal, the general proposition was that Mr. Oli is the only politician who worked tirelessly to bridge India’s relations with Nepal. In fact, in 1996, to support India in India and Nepal Mahakali River water sharing agreement, Mr. Oli was the person who quit from Communist Party of Nepal- Unified Marxist Leninist, only to support India. In fact, subsequently when he was the Home Minister of Nepal, Mr. Oli would often support Indian intelligence agencies operating in Nepal to help them nab criminals and terrorists.
Things changed after 2015 when Nepal announced their new Constitution and India felt that it was weak on assurances for Madhesi people. This was something that Mr. Oli, the key architect of the Nepali Constitution, did not appreciate. Just after the promulgation of the Constitution, when Mr. Oli was about to take power as the PM, Indian intelligence agencies tried to undercut his authority, by propping up Sushil Koirala of Nepali Congress. However, the election of Koirala, supported covertly by India, could not succeed and Mr. Oli eventually managed to take power. This led to India imposing an economic blockade on Nepal in 2016.
At this juncture in March 2016, Chinese stepped in to assist Mr. Oli and China and Nepal signed an eight-point Transit and Transport Facilitation Agreement. With support of the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), in July 2016, Prachanda (a former Prime Minister himself) pulled out support from the government of Mr. Oli, making him run a minority government. In December 2017, when elections finally happened in Nepal, Mr. Oli bounced back with support of Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS, Chinese intelligence agency) with a two thirds majority. The Chinese MSS and Mr. Oli ran a successful anti-India campaign all across Nepal, something that R&AW documented well, that worked well for him in his elections. After acquiring power, the MSS stationed their officials in the Office of the Prime Minister of Nepal and began to guide him to subdue the opposition. Within a short span of time the Madhesi activists were jailed and opposition was subdued completely, a typical Chinese tactic at work.
The shrill of Mr. Oli grew in November 2019, when India published their map. Mr. Oli used this to display his nationalist plank. This is so because Mr. Oli did not have something which Prachanda and Nepali Congress had. While Prachanda is credited with bringing down the monarchy in Nepal, the Nepali Congress has been credited with bringing democracy to Nepal. This was Mr. Oli’s moment of nationalism. The timing of the Oli government bringing about the changes on the political map, citizenship amendment et cetera is predominantly driven by internal troubles. Firstly, the political seat of Mr. Oli is in danger because his rivals, Prachanda and Madhav Nepal, were trying to join hands so as to unseat him. Secondly, to prevent any destabilization of the Oli government, the Chinese ambassador to Nepal (famously known in Nepali intelligence community as the “New Queen of Nepal’’), Amb. Hou Yanqi (as per an internal report of R&AW, she is a trained intelligence operative of the Chinese MSS), stepped in to persuade the opponents to not destabilize the government.
At a time when Oli was looking to divert attention from the domestic populace from the internal political chaos, India inaugurated the DharchulaLipu Lekh road in May 2020. It came as a blessing for Mr. Oli who now got an opportunity to brandish his nationalist credentials. This led to Oli using abusive and offensive language against India, knowing well that Amb. Hou Yanqi would be a strategic wall to supporting him. The matters got aggravated when the Indian Army Chief, suffering from verbal diarrhea, made a comment stating issues that are being raised by Nepal have the backing of a third government. This created a massive uproar in Nepal. Being aware of Nepali assertion of India resorting to cartographic aggression since November 2019, India could have exercised restraint. But, India added salt to the injured Nepali ego by inaugurating the Lipu Lekh-Dharchula road with intense fanfare, something in sync with BJP brand of tactics high on rhetoric and low on substance.
It is time for India to be more coherent in foreign policy and adopt a clear policy on how it will be checking the rising anti-India sentiment in Nepal, something which has become a pastime of the Nepali politicians now. There is a need for India to develop clarity on how to tackle the growing influence of China, alienation of old friends of India (Nepali Congress, in this case) and strategies to reach out to the Nepali youth. It is time for India to aptly position itself as an “opportunity” and not a “threat”. India for long has been ignorant about the changing political dynamics of Nepali politics and has believed that Nepali diplomacy will take care of Indian interests.
This approach has given the Nepali politicians the space to whip India and demonstrate their nationalist credentials. India’s old policy of using a shared culture, language and religion with Nepal has created a paternalistic feeling in Nepal today and some sections believe that India uses these tactics to bully the Nepali people. For example, this is reflected in the fact that the open border between the two countries since historical times is perceived as a sign of unequal relationship today. This is where India needs to rework its Nepal policy and look at Nepal as a special and a strategic friend and not as an extended protectorate of India. However, the days of Mr. Oli, like his Sri Lankan counterpart Mahinda Rajapakshe in 2015, are certainly numbered. Indian intelligence is back in the game in Nepal and a regime change is in the offing.
(The writer teaches international relations at Vajiram and Ravi, Delhi and is the author of ‘International Relations for Civil Services Examination’)