How India steadily lost all its leverage in Nepal
At the end of 2015, soon after Nepal promulgated a new constitution, the Madhesis of the country’s southern plains intensified a movement seeking revisions in the structure of political representation and federalism. The constitution, they believed, would create a deeply inequitable polity. An Indian diplomat then told a Madhesi interlocutor, “Why don’t you promulgate your own constitution? That is the only way Kathmandu will learn a lesson. We are with you.”
A year-and-a-half later, in the middle of 2017, Nepal was all set to hold its local elections. Madhesi parties, still waiting for an amendment, did not wish to participate in the polls since that would have meant endorsing the constitution. A key Indian diplomat then told the same Madhesi interlocutor, “Madhes is a liability for us... you should surrender to the Kathmandu mainstream, even if it means being ‘second class citizens’...India’s only interest is in keeping Kathmandu happy so that it doesn’t move to China.”
In those contrasting messages lies the tale of India’s Nepal diplomacy. It also explains Nepal’s recent electoral result – where a ‘communist alliance’ on an explicitly anti-India plank has won – and how Indian inconsistency, ad-hoc policy making, multiplicity of power centres, conflicting messages, and absence of will has contributed to it.
Indian diplomacy has gone through five interlinked phases in the last two years in Nepal.
The first was defining its core concern in Nepal’s constitutional project. When Nepal’s hill elite came close to drafting its constitution in August-September 2015, and the Tarai began burning, Delhi slowly sent signals to Kathmandu that an inclusive constitution that took into account Madhesi concerns was advisable. This was good advice — an inclusive Nepal is good for both Nepal since it would cater to aspirations for all citizens and for India since it would create balances in a polity known for anti Indian nationalism. But the advice came too late. India had neither used its leverage with Nepali parties nor prepared Indian political opinion well enough to emphasise why an inclusive constitution was essential. Nepal’s hill elite went ahead with their statute. India lost the moment.
It was because they left intervention too late that India and its Madhesi allies ended up using their most potent weapon – blocking supplies at the border to put pressure on Kathmandu – to revise the constitutional compact. This generated a backlash in the hills, gave the then PM K P Oli ammunition to stoke ultra nationalism, and reach out to a willing China. It also began drawing criticism within India — as the Congress saw it as a tool to hit out with at the Modi government.
Rattled by the criticism, without achieving its desired objective fully, India prodded the Madhesis to withdraw the blockade. This led to triumphalism in Kathmandu’s conservative polity — they had defeated India’s ‘Brahmastra’. The lesson drawn was simple — if you screech against India, if you play the China card, Delhi will get scared and back off.
This is when India decided that its priority was no longer an inclusive constitution as much as it was removing Oli from office; or ‘teaching him a lesson’. It managed to persuade Prachanda to withdraw from the alliance, stitch a coalition with the Nepali Congress, and Delhi could thus tell its own domestic audience all was fine back in Nepal.
The final act was when India pushed the Madhesi parties to participate in elections – even though they were deeply uncomfortable with the constitution, almost making a two year policy exercise futile.
Through this process, there was a powerful constituency within India’s political establishment which was sending an entirely different message to Nepal — our interest is really in a Hindu rashtra, not inclusion. Kathmandu’s hill leaders made most of the divide within India’s ruling establishment.
And so Delhi lost the Nepali elite: it threw away powerful leverage by forcing Madhesis to accept a system where they can never swing the balance; and it opened doors for the Chinese. This election has marked Nepal’s shift from being a partly sovereign country — where India had a role in domestic political management – to an almost fully sovereign country – where Indian leverage in Nepal’s internal politics has shrunk to its most negligible.
The loss of political control is accompanied by – or is perhaps because of – India’s shrinking leverage with a new generation of Nepali politicians, civil society and opinion makers who are either exposed to the western world or are rooted in the Nepali speaking world and have little emotional investment in the bonds with India.
India has got away in the past because it had a monopoly on Nepali politics. With China strongly backing the left alliance, this is now shattered. It is now stuck with two bad choices — remain an ineffective and incompetent manager of Nepal’s domestic politics and put off everyone, or stay away and see China fill the vacuum. Both options have strategic costs.