Nepal Takes First Steps To Move Out Of India's Shadow, China Gains
Nepalese protest against PM Modi during his visit to London last week
NEW DELHI: Relations between Nepal and India have frozen over what continues to be an impasse over the Himalayan nation’s Constitution. The blockade continues with the anti-India sentiment in Nepal soaring as the country faces an acute shortage of cooking gas, fuel, and life saving medicines.
China has come to the rescue and signed agreements with Nepal for the supply of cooking gas and fuel. But as sources in Kathmandu point out, “ the supplies will take some time and we are already in the middle of winter.” India, the sources said, has “plunged us into a major humanitarian crisis” with even earthquake relief supplies being stopped at the borders.
New Delhi continues to maintain that it has nothing to do with the blockade, and the trucks have not moved fearing security concerns because of the agitation by the Madhesis demanding adequate representation in the Nepal Constitution.
Kathmandu is equally categorical that the majority of the elected representatives from the Madhes region in Nepal have supported the Constitution, and that just “five defeated leaders” are being encouraged by New Delhi “with the help of Indian citizens” to block the roads.
Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli is said to be re-examining the multi billion hydro power projects signed with Indian companies with a view to cancelling those that have been pending construction for several years. Nepal has to take a decision on the allocation of major projects such as the construction of a new airport and an expressway but the sources said that these are now “highly unlikely” to go to India.
Nepal has stepped up the diplomatic offensive, following the blockade. For the first time it has moved out, as the sources said, from India’s shadow to build its own relations with the world. Aggressive diplomacy has drawn positive statements from both the United Nations and the United States.UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said recently in a first statement on the blockade, that it was essential for the blockade to be lifted, drawing attention to the harsh weather conditions in Nepal during winter.
The United States also expressed serious concern with its embassy in Nepal issuing a statement earlier this month stating, “The United States is deeply concerned by the increasingly volatile situation along the Nepal-India border, resulting in critical shortages of fuel, medicine, and foodstuffs, including in areas still reeling from the devastating earthquakes of April and May.
With winter only weeks away, the international donor community is unable to deliver vital relief and shelter supplies to many vulnerable communities. Lives are at stake, and we are concerned that a humanitarian crisis may result.
The United States calls on all those involved to redouble their efforts to resolve this crisis. Everyone should contribute to creating positive conditions for meaningful political dialogue to ensure that the constitution accommodates the aspirations of all Nepalis. The United States stands ready to assist the people and government of Nepal as they continue along their democratic path and rebuild from the April earthquake.”
Nepal has made it clear that it will not be pushed by India to make any changes in the Constitution, and this will done, if at all, by a process decided upon by its own lawmakers. Diplomatically New Delhi has not been particularly suave, with Foreign Secretary Jaishankar’s visit to Nepal earlier being a ‘lesson in disaster.” Sources said that the Indian foreign secretary angered Nepal Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli and other senior leaders by virtually “ordering” them to bring in the required changes in the Constitution. The sources said that instead of sending a senior politician, New Delhi sent an official to speak to Nepal’s top leaders, “an insult that did not go unnoticed.”
Signficantly, all contacts between New Delhi and Kathmandu since the Promulgation of the Constitution have not brought any positive results. In fact the reverse, as even on Diwali when the Indian envoy to Nepal Ranjit Rae visited PM Oli with sweets, the latter told him that a real Fiwali gift would be cooking gas, medicines and fuel.
In the Nepal government’s assessment, the problems began when a public meeting of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Janakpur and Lumbini before the Saarc summit in Kathmandu was cancelled. The Prime Minister was scheduled to distribute 20,000 bicycles to Nepalese girls at the Janakpur meeting and both were cancelled following protests from different political parties and leaders within Nepal.
Subsequently, Kathmandu was given a clear indication by New Delhi that it expected Nepal to declare itself a Hindu Rashtra in the new Constitution. Sources said that the message was communicated to the top Nepal leaders before the Constitution was adopted. When Nepal ignored New Delhi’s directive, and decided to opt for a secular, federal Republic instead it created a major stir in New Delhi with the foreign secretary’s visit within 36 hours of the promulgation of the Constitution to basically read the Nepal government the “riot act.”
Before Dussehra, and worried about a possible turn in public opinion from being anti-India to becoming hostile to the Nepal government, PM Oli sent his Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa to meet his India counterpart Sushma Swaraj. Sources said that Thapa made it very clear during the meeting that Nepal was a sovereign country and just as it would not prescribe anything to India, it also did not want to listen to anyones prescription. Swaraj also said that there was little she could do about the blockade, with the top Ministers also unable to resolve the crisis.
PM Oli is categorical about not succumbing to any pressure from India insofar as Nepal’s constitution is concerned. He is willing to accommodate all other concerns, but from all accounts PM Modi is not willing to back off on the Constitution as yet. Kathmandu sources said that Nepal is now in the grip of a strong anti-India “wave” and this will have a major impact on bilateral relations. Nepal-India relations have been very close, almost incestuous, but now the sources said, “India has helped us to strike out on our own now.” The agreements with China are expected to kick in over the next few wweeks with the government reportedly giving itself “six months” to address all the economic and political issues created by the blockade. “We will not bow down to India” is the sentiment within the government at the moment, with sources saying that the leadership now was not prepared to compromise.