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Nepal: India's emasculated responses have emboldened KP Oli

CK Lal | Updated on: 9 May 2016, 21:48 IST

It has been a since the April 2015 Nepal earthquake that killed over 8,000 people, injured more than 21,000, adversely affected the livelihood of nearly eight million, and caused direct damages exceeding $10 billion in one of the poorest countries of the world. But almost nothing has been done to even ameliorate suffering of survivors of the devastating tremors.

International commitments of over $4.1 billion for rehabilitation and reconstruction remain largely unused. The National Reconstruction Agency (NRA), the state organisation charged with the responsibility of coordinating and conducting post-quake restoration, has been dysfunctional ever since its formation with senior government officials refusing to be posted to the highly politicised body.

The divisive constitution, promulgated despite strong opposition from a large section of Nepalese, remains dormant. The government appears clueless as Madheshis-indigenous people of southern flatlands of the country-continue to agitate for substantive federalism and meaningful inclusion.

Also read - Nepal-India ties: Why PM KP Oli continues to dare New Delhi

Meanwhile, the coalition government headed by Premier Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli is busy doing what it knows best: political and diplomatic shadow-boxing to divert attention from its complete failure on all fronts of governance.

Imagined enemy

In an abrupt manner, Premier Oli's government cancelled a scheduled visit of President Bidhya Bhandari to New Delhi. The decision was strange because a planned pilgrimage of President Bhandari to the Simhastha Kumbha in Ujjain was reportedly turned into her first formal visit abroad at the insistence of officials handling her itinerary. The sudden cancellation has caused more than mere disappointment among those involved with preparations of the visit.

An equally bizarre decision was the immediate recall of Nepalese Ambassador Deep Kumar Upadhyay from New Delhi. At a time when Nepal-India relations are at historic low, it would have made better sense to allow an experienced incumbent to help mend tottering ties.

However, that's precisely the charge 'nationalist' members close to the coalition government in Kathmandu level against Ambassador Upadhyay-the envoy was trying to appease the country to which he was accredited. Even doing one's assigned job in a transparent manner can land an envoy in trouble. This is one of those things that happen only in Nepal.

Whatever the posturing of Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa be in public, the real reason behind the recall of Ambassador Upadhyay was his insistence that the formal visit of the head of state to his accredited country not be cancelled in a manner that could be construed to be undiplomatic.

The government had every right to overrule the envoy. It decided to rub it in by recalling him instead. The message is resoundingly clear: Kathmandu is mighty displeased with New Delhi.

It's normal for the formal relationship between India and Nepal to resemble troughs and crests of a sine curve where political elites of two capital cities alternately hug and spurn each other with predictable regularity even as people of two countries live along in peace irrespective of shenanigans of their governments. However, current anxieties appear similar to the apprehensions of 1970s when Kathmandu saw an 'Indian Hand' behind all its economic, social and political ills.

Current anxieties appear similar to the 70s when Kathmandu saw an 'Indian Hand' behind all its ills

The proximate cause of Premier Oli's annoyance was his perception that New Delhi had been surreptitiously conspiring with the main constituent of the coalition that he heads-UCPN (Maoist)-to destabilise his government. The largest party of the Constituent Assembly, which is assigned to function as the parliament until next election, is in opposition.

It's quite natural for the main opposition party Nepali Congress to seek the support of the third biggest party in the parliament to pull down the rug from the feet of a malfunctioning coalition in the government. All that would have been par for the course in any parliamentary democracy.

However, Nepal isn't just any other country-it's an entity that needs to periodically assert its sovereignty in order to feel that its independence is intact. India often allows itself to be a convenient punching bag in a deadpan manner, which infuriates the PEON even further.

A rumour was floated, perhaps intentionally, from people considered close to Premier Oli that the government was contemplating some extreme measures to chastise Indian Ambassador Ranjit Rae. The 'news' was picked up by some in the Indian media, which made the ruling elite in Kathmandu gloat. If nothing else, it indicates that Nepal-India relations will probably get a lot worse before it gets any better under the current dispensation.

Contested issues

The distrust between Kathmandu and New Delhi is mutual as usual. Suspicion of 'expansionist' and 'imperialistic' India is the only thread that binds the disparate coalition of monarchists, Maoists, Stalinists and sundry other leftists together in central secretariat Singh Durbar.

Analogous to Trotsky's famous comment that Stalin did not create the apparatus, but it was the Soviet apparatus that created him, Premier Oli is merely a front man of the PEON that looks longingly backwards to the 1970s when King Birendra tried to steer Nepal away from the Indian sphere of influence.

Indians are perhaps correct in their assessment that the government under Premier Oli has taken up the task left incomplete by the ousted monarchy, which is to render the Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1950, on which Indo-Nepal special relationship is based, superfluous. This can only be achieved through a slew of agreements and understanding with Beijing that look perfectly normal on surface but succeeds in undermining the spirit of longstanding Indo-Nepal bond.

The Madheshis are described as 'foreign' and their cultural identity is vilified

There are other minor points of disagreement. Kathmandu has long considered the southern plains bordering Indian states of West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh-the Tarai-Madhesh-as some sort of 'internal colony'. Madheshis, the indigenous population of Tarai-Madhesh, have insignificant presence in the institutions of the state. Their cultural identity is vilified as foreign, meaning Indian, which it is due to Madheshis' familial relationships with people across the international border.

Though somewhat late, New Delhi surmised that Tarai-Madhesh was a potential flashpoint and wanted Kathmandu to address genuine concerns of federalism and inclusion in the new statute. The PEON interpreted the request as interference and roundly rejected all such suggestions.

The controversial constitution that Nepal adopted last September led to border blockages along key entry points from India to Nepal. The acrimony helped harden the position of Kathmandu towards Madheshis, and by extension, towards New Delhi too. Supply lines soon resumed, but the vested interest that feasted off border blockages through informal trade have been continuously fanning the dying fire of resentment against Indian establishment in Kathmandu.

Emasculated responses

The PEON is emboldened by New Delhi's meek responses to its piques. Indian diplomats aver in private that a muscular policy shift would end up hurting common Nepalese without touching the ruling elite. There is more than a grain of truth in such an assumption.

Even though Nepal is nominally a republic, the ruling regime in Kathmandu shows little or no concern for the plight of its people. The citizenry too is yet to come out of its habitual stupor of submitting obligingly to the diktats of the ruling regime evolved over two centuries of living under a monarchy.

There is a strong aristocratic lobby in New Delhi with familial links in elite circles of Kathmandu

There is a strong aristocratic lobby in New Delhi with familial links in elite circles of Kathmandu. The religious and business connections too are deep between two capitals. These networks have little or no sympathy for the plight of Madheshis, a group that they habitually describe as "people of Indian origin" that must make attempts to integrate into mainstream Nepalese society. They often nullify official policies through their well-meaning banters that are picked up by the media and magnified by the partisan press in Kathmandu. Even though small, there is a group of concerned citizenry in New Delhi with a default position of acceptance for the official Nepalese propaganda.

The prognosis is rather bleak: Indian response to the belligerence of Premier Oli will be lame once again due to its own domestic compulsions. Relationship will probably normalise in the end, but it may take a little long this time.

More in Catch - Nepal constitution: Madheshi protests end but the anger remains 100 days of Oli-garchy: Nepal PM's joke is on the people

First published: 9 May 2016, 21:28 IST
CK Lal @CatchNews

The writer is a noted journalist and political columnist from Nepal.