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Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Nepal: A victory of Indian ‘conciliators’ over ‘partisans’

External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj will be on a two-day visit to Nepal’s capital Kathmandu starting on Thursday, days ahead of the formation of a new Left alliance government led by KP Oli.

india Updated: Jan 31, 2018 23:59 IST
Sushma Swaraj,Sushma Swaraj Nepal visit,Nepal
File photo of external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj during an interaction with the media in New Delhi.(REUTERS)

There are many who think that external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj’s mandate is limited to merely managing distress of Indian citizens on social media. Nothing could be further from truth. And the one country which provides the starkest example of her key role in policy-making is where she is heading on Thursday — Nepal.

Her visit is happening at a time when the current Nepali government is in its last leg and a new government has not taken over. The ruling Nepali Congress, led by Sher Bahadur Deuba, was resoundingly defeated in recent polls. The Left Alliance, led by KP Oli, won a decisive mandate. But owing to ambiguous constitutional provisions, the transition has been prolonged. Deuba remains in power while Oli is waiting for all election formalities to be completed before he can take over — perhaps in February.

India wanted Deuba to win and Oli to lose the elections. China wanted the reverse. After the election outcome, a debate kicked off in Delhi on the path to pursue between what scholar Avinash Paliwal has called the ‘partisans’ and ‘conciliators’.

In his recent book on India’s Afghanistan Policy, Paliwal makes a distinction between these two broad schools of policymakers in Delhi. Partisans strongly believe that a particular political configuration in a neighbouring capital (in Kabul in the case of his book) would best serve India’s interests — and Delhi must back such groups. The conciliators hold India should do business with all sides — and not take strong positions in domestic politics. These are not fixed categories. The same institutions or individuals could switch from one side to another depending on circumstances.

In the past three years, after differences with Oli on the Nepali constitutional process, Indian partisans had been strong on Nepal policy — they clearly saw Oli as an adversary who needed to be kept out. They also argued, post-elections, Oli’s pro-China tilt is too strong and an alternative Nepali Congress-Maoist coalition should be encouraged.

But it is the conciliators who have the upper hand now — strongly arguing for deeper engagement with Oli. Here is the thinking — Oli has led his alliance to a victory; to be seen as undermining him would earn India wrath; there is anxiety about his links with China but he is a known entity with old links to India; engagement could neutralise his ultra nationalist rhetoric; and it is not possible to stitch a sustainable government keeping him out.

Swaraj is among those who has shifted from being a partisan — she was as keen to see Oli defeated — to conciliator. Her visit, as an official familiar with the relationship put it, is a ‘natural corollary of the contacts’ between India and Oli since the election. These contacts include two phone conversations between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Oli. In the second conversation, Modi invited Oli to come to India after taking over as PM, and Oli invited Modi to visit religious sites, including Janakpur and Lumbini, in Nepal. The Nepali leader then sought engagement at a ‘high political level’. The EAM’s visit is a signal to Oli how seriously the PM takes his request.

Swaraj thus has one core mandate — to reassure Oli that India wants to be friends with him; to allay any anxieties he may have that Delhi would seek to undermine the electoral verdict; to reiterate India’s invitation to him. She can be expected to congratulate Nepal in general and Oli in particular for the implementation of the constitution - which India had only noted and not welcomed in 2015. It is also most likely that Swaraj will omit any mention of the need for a constitutional amendment — the reason India had fallen out with Oli. All of this is meant to ensure that the next government in Kathmandu does not cross certain ‘security redlines’ in its inevitably deeper engagement with China.

Swaraj’s visit is an offering to a strong Oli to start anew. How Oli now balances the geopolitics — his debt to China for political support and the need to engage with India — will determine whether the conciliators continue to prevail in Delhi or whether the partisans win the next round.

First Published: Jan 31, 2018 23:56 IST