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China’s growing footprint in Nepal is a concern for India

As the Kathmandu elite, then led by UML prime minister K P Oli, cosied up to the Chinese during the blockade, India watched uncomfortably.

Written by Jyoti Malhotra | Updated: June 16, 2017 9:39 am

Newly elected Nepalese Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba smiles as he arrives for his swearing-in ceremony at the presidential building in Kathmandu, Nepal June 7, 2017. Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar

Sher Bahadur Deuba has been elected Prime Minister of Nepal at an especially fragile time in the life of the 11-year-old Himalayan republic. Two years after the majority Madhesi population in the Terai blocked several trading points along the southern border with India, there remains deep-seated resentment in large parts of Nepal against the Kathmandu elite.

Deuba inherits a divided Nepal, divided between the Madhesis and the upper caste Bahun-Chettris of Kathmandu Valley, with whom New Delhi has been doing business since it bailed out King Tribhuvan in 1950.

But what is interesting in todays Nepal is that India, which had supported the 2006 jan andolan against the monarchy which forced King Gyanendra to hand over power to the people; has all but distanced itself from the Madhes agitation and its demands: the right to be represented in Parliament and other state organs on the basis of population, or the one-man-one-vote principle.

Some would say that states must pursue power, and that in Nepal, power has always rested in Kathmandu Valley, not the Terai. And therefore, they would say, India cannot afford to take the high moral ground and continue to interminably support the Madhesis, who constitute 19.3 per cent of Nepal’s 28.5 million population. They would also argue that the Indian support of the rights of the Madhesis, and consequently the 135-day blockade they mounted from October 2015-February 2016 to demand those rights, has run its course and that it’s time to turn the page. (Forty five people were killed in the agitation then, including one Indian national, and all of Nepal, especially the Terai, had suffered hardships as essential supplies grew scarce.) However, among the Madhesis in towns such as Birgunj, Janakpur and Biratnagar there is a feeling that India has abandoned the Madhesi cause.

As the Kathmandu elite, then led by UML prime minister K P Oli, warmed up to the Chinese during the blockade, India watched uncomfortably. Certainly, it is this fear of the Chinese dragon expanding its presence across Nepal including in the Terai plains which neighbour Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Haryana and West Bengal that has forced India to postpone the big fight on behalf of the Madhesis.

K P Oli began to openly woo both the Chinese as well as King Gyanendra when he suspected that the Madhesis may actually come into their own with the help of his former benefactor, India. India watched with growing apprehension as Oli and his foreign minister, the pro-royal Kamal Thapa, promised the Chinese in March 2016 that it would allow them to open another consulate in the picturesque hill town of Pokhara. Beijing had already tempted Oli by offering him Nepali consulates in Lhasa and Guangzhou.

In addition, Oli agreed that the People’s Bank of China could open two more branches in the Terai, apart from the one it already had in Lumbini, where the Chinese are helping revamp the birthplace of the Buddha. The Chinese Northwest Civil Aviation Airport Construction Group is building the Gautam Buddha international airport in nearby Bhairahawa.

Then Deuba’s predecessor, Pushpa Kamal Dahal or Prachanda — who knows India well since 2005 when he lived underground in the neighbourhoods of Delhi and Noida to escape the wrath of King Gyanendra did something interesting. He put the Chinese bank projects on hold.

India, which had ironically played a key role in Prachanda’s dismissal in 2008-9 and helped Oli become prime minister, once again came out in support of the Maoist leader. It is no secret that Delhi, upset with Oli’s ‘betrayal’ of Madhesi aspirations as well as his solicitations of the Chinese, persuaded its old ally, the Nepali Congress, as well as Madhesi parties to unseat Oli; soon it had brokered a rotating prime ministership between Prachanda and Deuba.
Deuba’s ascension to the prime minister’s chair last week, for the fourth time in his political life, is part of this Delhi-brokered agreement. But sometime midway during Prachanda’s tenure, Delhi lost its nerve on the Madhes issue, fearful that the Chinese were expanding its presence in India’s traditional sphere of influence.

The Chinese were pouring money into Nepal, announcing projects everywhere, including in the Terai. Prachanda’s deputy prime minister, Krishna Bahadur Mahara, flew to Beijing to sign on the Belt and Road Initiative. For the first time, Nepal agreed that its defence forces would participate in exercises with the Chinese.

Meanwhile, after the Madhesi andolan ended on an indistinct note in February 2016, several Madhesi leaders went their own ways. Bijay Gacchedar and Upendra Yadav floated their own parties and fell in line with Kathmandu. Others, like Rajendra Mahato and Mahant Thakur, were persuaded by Delhi to form a coalition, the Rashtriya Janata Party of Nepal, along with the smaller Madhesi parties.

Delhi now hopes that Deuba, an able Nepali Congress leader, will amend the Constitution on the provincial boundary question as the Madhesis have long demanded; after all, the RJPN and others supported Deuba’s election on June 6.

jyoti.malhotra@expressindia.com

 

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