Madhesi leaders believe PM Oli has no intention of following through on his commitments
When Prime Minister K P Oli told a gathering in Beijing this week that he was on a “special mission” during his visit to China, I was reminded of remarks made by senior Indian figures during a visit to Kathmandu last year.
The blockade was just getting underway, and the former general of the Indian Army, Ashok Mehta huffed and puffed and said it was time for Nepal to choose between India and China. He almost sounded like a jilted lover in a triangular relationship.
As if the point wasn’t already clear, he went on to warn that China’s activities in Nepal were a serious threat to India. This reflected the Indian military establishment’s deep distrust of China, which despite cordial diplomatic relations between Beijing and New Delhi and burgeoning bilateral trade, hasn’t recovered from the humiliation of 1962.
At the same press conference, former Indian ambassador to Nepal K V Rajan made a strong case for federalism, coming strongly on the side of disputed Tarai districts being amalgamated into future Madhes provinces. The gist of his argument, and indeed of the Indian foreign policy establishment, is that if the provincial boundaries were not settled as he suggested, it would create domestic instability in Nepal and that would affect India’s strategic interests. Which is why India couldn’t remain a mute spectator.
The NC-UML coalition in Kathmandu then flip-flopped between a six-province model that it rectified to seven provinces after strikes in western Nepal for a united far-west. Indeed, it turned out as Rajan had predicted, boundaries became the focus of a violent protest movement that engulfed the Tarai and triggered a border blockade in which India got deeply involved.
The point of all this is that the blockade has actually ended up diluting Indian influence in Nepal on the Madhes issue. Oli has bagged quite a few important trade, transit and investment deals with China during his visit, and the prospect of importing petroleum from China in future is still alive.
Even the Madhesi parties seemed to have taken the cue and went over to meet the Chinese ambassador and warned him not to engage the Oli government in any substantial deal because it would bypass the Madhes. And without a settlement of the Madhes issue Nepal could never hope to attain stability, which in turn would affect China’s strategic interest.
Interesting that Mehta and the Madhesi leaders both harked upon stability in Nepal as being in the national security interests of both India and China respectively.
Privately, Madhesi party leaders believe PM Oli is taking them for a ride and they don’t trust him to implement any of his promises to them. They think he is using the China Card to frighten India and defuse the Madhes movement. They find it suspicious that Oli did not sign a joint communiqué in New Delhi last month, as the Indian side wanted, which would have put down in writing his commitment towards the Madhes.
In that sense, the issues that were precursors to the violence in the Madhes and the border blockade have still not been addressed, and Oli (emboldened domestically by his visits North and South) is unlikely to honour his commitments.
Many analysts believe that Nepal should first resolve its internal problem and then reset relations with India and China. Oli has got it backwards, he is playing geopolitical games to dilute the genuine demands of the plains people for true autonomy.