Talking Turkey: After Oli's exit, handle Kathmandu with care

India has been the traditional whipping boy by dissatisfied Nepali politicians.

K.P. Oli’s resignation from Nepal’s prime ministership is good news for India given his pronounced tilt towards China at New Delhi’s expense, but it is only the first chapter of a convoluted story that will take weeks and months to clear. Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Prachanda), whose withdrawal of support from the coalition led to the present crisis, is poised to assume the prime ministerial gaddi. How and when he will do so really depends on how a somewhat ambiguous provision of the new Constitution is interpreted. Controversies over the Constitution and the patent injustice done to residents of the plains, leading to the months-long blockade of the Indo-Nepal border created crises and Mr Oli, among others, reacted to the privations of his people by turning to China.

He is not the first or the last Nepali leader to play the China card — Mr Dahal himself has flirted with it at one time — but more Nepali politicians appear to be slowly accepting the view that geography and the close family ties linking Indians and Nepalis make India-bashing a self-defeating exercise. In tangible terms, Mr Oli failed his country on several fronts. Madhesi grievances over their under-representation under the Constitution remained un-redressed, despite a dialogue he held to listen to them. Constituting as they do 51 per cent of the population, they have genuine demands, but this a knotty problem guided by the largely hill-resident elite appropriating the larger share of the cake. Besides, he has had only a little over a nine-month window to operate in.

Second, work on the rehabilitation of the thousands displaced by the catastrophic earthquake last year has been excruciatingly slow. And Mr Oli has been shortsighted in coping with the blockade by castigating India and befriending China. Making sense of the alphabet soup of political parties, the main formations are the Congress, Maoists and Communist party, at present on one side, and Mr Oli’s Unified Marxist-Leninist Party on the other. The Speaker, Onsari Gharti, is a Maoist but President Bidhya Devi Bhandari belonged to Mr Oli’s party. One way to resolve the problem of the Prime Minister would be to let Parliament decide, but that would need presidential assent. Given that she belongs to

Mr Oli’s party and he has been vocal in denouncing “external forces” (read India) for forcing him to resign, the President’s word is awaited. In the decades’ long relationship between an Independent India and Nepal, New Delhi has sometimes been overbearing in dealing with Kathmandu, but its last intervention in bringing the warring political parties together was largely benign and led to the exercise in making the Constitution that is being challenged by the Madhesis, among others. In recent years, India has come to the conclusion that it should not over-react to Nepali rhetoric and that as a small country neighbouring a giant, it is not unnatural for politicians to have a chip on their shoulder.

How far we are in achieving the goal of normal relations remains to be seen. One only hopes that Mr Oli and his friends realise that even if they disregard close kinship, they cannot fight geography. China can compensate Kathmandu up to a point; it has signed transit agreements and has promised to build an airport at Pokhara with international tourism in mind, but it can’t reverse the logic of geography. Nepal has travelled a long way from the days of the all-powerful monarchy although it remains a political factor in the divided political spectrum. Indeed, one of the barbs Mr Dahal has aimed at Mr Oli is that he was “psychologically and emotionally too close to the monarchy”.

In historical terms, India has been the traditional whipping boy by dissatisfied Nepali politicians. A complicating factor is the souring of India’s relationship with China, thanks to Beijing blocking New Delhi’s unwise high-octane bid to seek membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. A new irritant is the Indian decision not to renew the visas of three Chinese journalists working for state news agency Xinhua led to the official cousin of People’s Daily in English lambasting New Delhi. If Beijing believes it can frighten India with such rhetoric, it has got its bearings wrong. In a larger context, China’s approach to Nepal fits in with its policy of encircling India. Pakistan has of course been its long-time ally, nurtured most recently by the multi-billion-dollar project of building a new Silk Road linking Beijing to Europe via Pakistan. It has also befriended Sri Lanka and has been helping it, particularly during the previous regime. Its new warning to India is a signal that it is keeping its powder dry.

On India’s part, we need a comprehensive policy towards our neighbours. Pakistan is always a special case, with the recent new unrest in Kashmir giving Islamabad a new handle to beat New Delhi with. As suggested earlier, New Delhi has been more mature in dealing with Nepal and a new chapter has been opened with the government of President Maithripala Sirisena in Sri Lanka. It is not surprising that our smaller neighbours should play the China card against India. It is how New Delhi reacts to such provocations that will largely determine the outcome.

Mercifully, the state of Indo-American ties and Washington’s own priorities mean New Delhi’s predicament is well understood in Western capitals. Not only is New Delhi veering closer to the United States, Japan and Australia to guard its flank but is seeking to pay China back in its own coin by reaching out to Vietnam, Beijing’s unhappy neighbour. Given the number of actors in Nepal and their different goals and ambitions, volatility in Nepali politics won’t end. It is therefore important to view events there with a wide lens. The current phase of political instability will take time to resolve. It would be wise to watch events and help responsible parties if help is sought.

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