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SOURCE: FIRST POST

A tug of war has been underway between India and China over Nepal, India’s neighbour to the north, whose unique position has the rival economies vying for its attention.

While Beijing sees Nepal as a bulwark against the “international movement targeting China”, for New Delhi the Hindu nation is important for the region’s security, a buffer, so to speak, against China, and to maintain its sphere of influence.

The latest reports of the political crisis in the Himalayan Hindu nation means, both the opposing forces are likely to up their efforts, to ensure the new leadership, whoever that be, are on their side and not the enemy.

According to a report in Hindustan Times, China has already kicked off the efforts with Hou Yanqi, China’s ambassador to Nepal, on Tuesday evening, meeting Nepal president Bidya Devi Bhandari at the presidential palace Shital Niwas.

Thought the exact details of the meet are not known — reports claimed it was over COVID-19 vaccines — Hou’s visit is crucial as it has come just two days after Bhandari dissolved the Nepalese Parliament on the recommendation of Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli.

According to reports, 68-year-old Oli recommended the move because of the friction within the Nepalese Communist Party, which was making it difficult for him to govern.

Oli had become prime minister after his Nepal Communist Party won elections three years ago. Oli’s party and the party of former Maoist rebels had merged to form a strong communist party to win the election.

There has, however, been a power tussle between Oli and the leader of the former Maoists rebels, 66-year-old Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda, who is also the co-chair of the NCP. Oli has refused to succeed him as the prime minister or lead the party, causing problems within the party.

While Oli didn’t name Prachanda or New Delhi on Sunday, it was clear that he was blaming them for the current political crisis. According to My Republica, Oli addressed the lawmakers close to him on Sunday and said that he was forced to take the decision to dissolve Parliament after he was “cornered” within his party and conspiracies were hatched against him in collusion with national and international forces.

“We have to ask for forgiveness with the people and go for a fresh election as we could not deliver what we had promised,” Oli told the lawmakers, according to PTI.

In the past, Oli has accused India of trying to oust him from power after the country’s parliament approved a new Nepal map, including featuring Lipulekh, Kalapani, and Limpiyadhura areas which India maintains belong to it.

Anti-India rhetoric has been an important element of Oli’s nationalistic campaign, which brought the NCP to power in 2018, and has found several takers in the Himalayan nation. But, in the last few years, the anti-India rhetoric has advanced to the military level. Under Oli, Nepal has gone as far as to increase the presence of the Nepalese Army at the border along with India, including opening a border outpost near Kalapani.

On Sunday, Oli played the India card again, saying, he “was victimised for enhancing national pride by publishing a map with the inclusion of Kalapani and Lipulekh”.

According to a report in The Kathmandu Post, over the past many months, China, and most importantly Hou, played a crucial role in preventing a split within the Nepalese Communist Party or a dissolution of the Oli government.

In fact, in late April and early May 2020, Hou had prevented the collapse of the government by holding back-to-back talks with the NCP leadership including Oli, and Prachanda, and senior leader Madhav Nepal. This unity, however, was short-lived as two months later, the Prachanda-led faction was back demanding Oli’s resignation.

Though Oli’s pro-China stance makes one believe that Beijing would prefer Oli over Prachanda, and Oli may have the Chinese blessing for the dissolution, according to an article in The Diplomat, China really has no preference as to who is running the government.

Kathmandu-based political analyst Chandra Dev Bhatta told The Diplomat recently that after the political change in Nepal in 2008, “China has been penetrating in Nepali politics as well as in society”. In fact, it was China that had brought the UML and Maoist factions of the Nepalese Communist Party together in 2018.

The growing Chinese influence, meant India receiving a cold shoulder, especially with Oli at the helm.

After months of coldness, Nepal had begun warming up to India over the last three months following several high-level visits. The first one being in October by RAW chief Samang Goel, which was followed by Chief of Army Staff General MM Naravane (4 November), and lastly visits from India’s foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla later that month.

Shringla had flown to Kathmandu just two days before China’s Defence Minister and State Councilor Wei Fenghe visited the Himalayan nation. Already, China via ambassador Hou has unfettered access to Nepalese leaders, including Nepalese president Bidya Devi Bhandari and the rival Nepal Communist Party leaders Oli and Prachanda.

In fact, in the past, Nepal President Bhandari has held meetings with Hou without officials from Nepal Foreign Office, violating the diplomatic code of conduct.

Nepal’s voters are set to elect a new government in April-May even though the fate of this election remains uncertain. A constitutional bench of the Nepal Supreme Court is set to begin hearing at least a dozen petitions challenging the dissolution of the Nepal Parliament Friday.

In a guarded reaction to political developments in Nepal, India Thursday termed Oli’s decision to dissolve the Parliament and call for fresh elections as an “internal matter” that is for the country to decide as per its democratic processes.

“We have noted the recent political developments in Nepal. These are internal matters for Nepal to decide as per its democratic processes,” External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said at a media briefing.

“As a neighbour and well-wisher, India will continue to support Nepal and its people in moving forward on the path of peace, prosperity and development,” he said.

However, with Beijing keeping no secret about its influence on Nepal politicians, New Delhi is unlikely to hold back in ensuring Kathmandu remains an ally and part of its sphere of influence. More so since China is making inroads into Nepal’s territory.

Under Oli, China has reportedly occupied strategic lands at 11 places across Nepal. “Around 36 hectares of land in four districts of Nepal, which border China, have been illegally occupied by China, but so far Nepalese government is tight-lipped about it,” according to a report in The Statesman.

India wouldn’t want somebody who is unsympathetic towards its security concerns and that too in its sphere of influence, but at the same time, India too must pay attention to Nepal’s core economic and strategic interests that in the first place pushed Nepal towards China.