KP Oli arrives in India: Bilateral ties with Nepal are finally recalibrating from exceptionalism to realism

As Home Minister Rajnath Singh received Nepal's prime minister KPS Oli and his 53-member delegation at the New Delhi airport on Friday afternoon, the moment marked the culmination of a fundamental shift in the modalities of bilateral relationship. Managing this transformation has been a key focus area for India's diplomacy in its immediate neighbourhood.

Oli's gesture to keep alive the tradition of a new Nepalese prime minister making India the first foreign destination should not be overemphasised. His insistence on seeking a trust-based relationship, despite the backdrop of acute past acrimony, is rooted in realism. For India too, the gradual shift from exceptionalism towards realism is evident. With realism as the new basis, ties are being recalibrated between two old neighbours who share border, and an ancient civilisational and cultural connect.

This realism is rooted in a new reality arising out of China's formidable rise. As Beijing goes about bending regional magnetic fields to its gravitational pull, this new reality demands a change in behaviour from both sides.

File image of Narendra Modi and KP Sharma Oli. PTI

File image of Narendra Modi and KP Oli. PTI

For India, it requires an acceptance that its exceptionalism in regional sphere is over. This is a stiff challenge for a country that has long believed in its primacy in the subcontinent and has formulated its foreign policy based on this exceptionalism. A refusal to accept this reality, however, may result in misadventures of the kind New Delhi embarked upon during the 135-day blockade of Nepal. There's an argument to be made that the manoeuvre failed in its primary target — building pressure on Nepalese leadership to amend its Constitution and factor in India's concerns over lack of a pluralistic approach — and instead facilitated Nepal's tilt towards China.

This should make it evident for India that its geostrategic and civilisational primacy will now have to be contextualised within this new realism where New Delhi's concerns, red lines and insecurities are not an automatic, let alone primary consideration for its smaller neighbours as they go about exercising their choice. Instead, India must take a long-term view of its strategic worries and introduce greater transactionalism in its approach to bilateral ties. This is a crucial but inevitable shift from the predominantly moral posturing that marked its Nehruvian foreign policy tenets.

Fortunately, this is happening. We increasingly see a greater emphasis on transactionalism in India's approach based on a realist interpretation of events. Oli's consolidation of power in Nepal on a nationalist manifesto fueled by an anti-India sentiment; Kathmandu's desire to renegotiate treaties and special provisions based on new realities; open embrace of China's Belt and Road initiative; preference to Chinese companies over Indian in generating hydropower; courting of Chinese infrastructure projects, investments in sectors of energy and tourism; breaking India's monopoly in cyber connectivity that saw New Delhi lose its captive market — all these developments could have caused a permanent rift in bilateral ties.

We saw instead from India a pragmatic approach that sought to address the new realities. Since Oli's second shot at premiership — this time with an overwhelming mandate — New Delhi has worked hard with Oli administration behind the scenes to bring a modicum of stability in ties. Prime Minister Narendra Modi placed two phone calls to congratulate Oli on regaining prime ministership and increased engagement with Nepalese leadership on multiple levels.

As Prashant Jha writes in Hindustan Times, "There was a view in Delhi that India must do what it could to stop the Oli-Maoist combine from coming to power. But this was quickly overruled… External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj made a visit to Kathmandu before the Oli government took over and, defying protocol, spent most of her time with UML leaders (then still in opposition) and met Nepali Congress leader and PM Sher Bahadur Deuba at the end. Besides, the Indian ambassador to Nepal - senior diplomat Manjeev Puri - has been on a charm offensive to woo Oli. (His) India visit is a culmination of this intensified diplomacy."

Jha argues that the recalibration is not without costs. For instance, India is facing charges of 'Oli appeasement' from old allies Nepali Congress, New Delhi also seems to have dropped its reservations over denial of rights to Madhesis leading to a sense of betrayal among the India-origin residents of Madhes province, and there's also the apprehension that cozying up to Oli will rob India of strategic space. These fears are not unfounded but the realist approach to diplomacy is based on managing contradictory tensions. This is where transactionalism comes in.

Media reports indicate that during his scheduled meeting, Modi may impress upon Oli that awarding contracts to Chinese companies for generating hydropower may force India to avoid buying power from Nepal. According to Jyoti Malhotra in The Indian Express, India may replicate its hydro-cooperation model with Bhutan in Nepal only if Indian companies are roped in. The article quotes a government official as saying "You can't expect India to buy power from a Chinese-built project. Let Nepal take Chinese assistance to build those dams and let China buy back the power produced from there."

It is debatable whether public airing of views that should be restricted to negotiation table are beneficial but there should be no doubt that this is far removed from the moral preaching that marked India's erstwhile approach. Greater engagement within clearly defined boundaries should help foster bilateral ties because just as India needs to accept new realities, Nepal, too, has to come to terms with the fact that it cannot sever umbilical ties with India in favour of an exclusive courtship of China. The Middle Kingdom's chequebook diplomacy might sound like a lucrative option for infrastructure-hungry south Asian nations but it comes at a great coercive cost.

Oli has put up a brave front, of course. He has refused to accept the painful realities that accompany Chinese investment in overseas infrastructure projects, preferring to cast his overtures within the paradigm of 'win-win' partnership that is straight out of Xi Jinping's propaganda machinery.

The Nepalese prime minister, however, would be well aware that there are "no free lunches in geopolitics," as Carnegie India senior fellow Constantino Xavier writes in The Wire. "Beyond China’s idealist narratives of 'win-win', all countries are driven by cost-benefit calculations and cold interests… Beijing’s current promises of support for Nepal will thus also come with a price. The cases of Myanmar and Sri Lanka since the 2000s reflect the Chinese modus operandi with all its devastating consequences, as grandiose infrastructure projects quickly turned into liabilities for the host countries, increasing their debt and, in turn, allowing Beijing to convert its financial clout into political leverage."

Getting taken in by Middle Kingdom's sweet aphorisms is never a good idea. Chinese investments are of dual use, so is its diplomacy that hides an imperialist core beneath genial outreach. In Pakistan, which has received prolonged Chinese investment and interest, there's a fear that Islamabad sovereignty is already at risk of getting undermined. In a startling recent incident, Chinese workers thrashed Pakistani law enforcement officials and vandalised police vehicles. The rowdy behaviour seems to have gone entirely unpunished, according to Pakistani media reports.

Xavier also argues that beyond a point, China will refrain from backing Nepal against India as soon as it detects an anomaly in cost-benefit ratio. There is no reason to think, however, that Kathmandu wants such a zero-sum approach. As ANI has reported, while briefing the House of Representatives in Kathmandu ahead of his India visit, Oli has promised not to take any steps that may foster feeling of disparity between the two nations. During interviews to Indian newspapers, the Nepalese prime minister has been at pains to point out that he seeks India's friendship.

"In terms of our expectations from this visit, I want to make it clear. The starting point of our neighbourhood policy is friendship. If you say tell me three things Nepal needs from India, I would say, the first is friendship, the second is friendship and the third is also friendship. We have completed our political struggle, but now there is a new phase, of Nepal’s struggle for development and prosperity," he told Suhasini Haidar of The Hindu.

Oli's words shouldn't be seen as rhetoric. Nepal, like many other smaller south Asian nations, is in need for faster growth and development and often it will take decisions that may or may not align with India's interests. For India, the key will be to separate its insecurities from worries. If that can be done efficiently, a lot of space will emerge to engage with neighbours based on principles of realism.


Updated Date: Apr 07, 2018 10:09 AM

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