A yam between two Indias

Ever since Nepal emerged as a nation-state nearly two-and-half centuries ago, one of its guiding principles has been to socially distance itself from empires to the north and south. 

As these powers rose and fell, Nepal’s rulers adjusted. We fought, lost, and learnt to live with the British in India. When India became independent in 1947, the anglophile Rana regime also faded away. 

Kathmandu maintained a difficult neutrality during the Sino-India war of 1962 because Nepali soldiers were at the frontlines, fighting and dying on behalf of one neighbour against another friendly neighbour. 

Throughout the Cold War, Nepal’s royal rulers walked the tight rope and even managed to take advantage of global and regional rivalries. And when China fell out with the Soviet Union, Nepal’s Communists split into little pieces. Henry Kissinger’s Beijing visit in 1975 and India’s affinity with the Soviet Bloc, meant Nepal’s kings had to keep tweaking the yam-between-stones doctrine. 

In today’s multipolar world, as tectonic forces rearrange geopolitics, Nepal is wedged once more. Last June’s deadly clash between Indian and Chinese troops in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley came just after Nepal and India also engaged in a war of words over Limpiyadhura-Kalapani.

In Kathmandu, Prime Minister K P Oli used the dispute with India to stoke up nationalist fervour. Not to needle India so much, but to blunt a mutiny within his own party. That power struggle has continued non-stop through many twists and turns right up to hearings in the Supreme Court this week over PM Oli’s second dissolution of the House and call for early elections.

An increasingly isolated and cornered Oli has been trying to mend fences with New Delhi. Even while the Chinese Ambassador tried to patch up cracks in the NCP late last year, India’s spy chief, army chief, foreign secretary and senior BJP advisers all jet-dashed to Kathmandu in close succession. The NCP disintegrated, and the UML split.

The more precarious Oli’s position looked, the more he tried to get back into New Delhi’s good books. He started waving the saffron flag, declared that Lord Ram was born in Chitwan, draped Pashupati in a Rs330 million gold pendant, and held forth in Hindi to pro-Narendra Modi Indian tv channels to trace India-Nepal ties to the Vedic era. Oli was coming across not as a politician, but a theologian.

Oli is being pummelled in Nepal for his second dissolution of the House, a move squarely denounced as authoritarian and unconstitutional. Yet, through it all, he has had the backing of the Mahanta Thakur faction of the JSP, which is itself split between pro-and anti-BJP factions. 

The perception in Kathmandu is that Oil has been ‘Modi-fied’, and the elections will be a way for the Hindu-Right to rise, scrap secularism, declare Nepal a Hindu state, and perhaps even restore the monarchy.

It used to be that when it drizzled in Delhi people unfurled umbrellas in Kathmandu. It is now the other way round. In the past week there has been a barrage of op-eds in India’s English press by three former Indian ambassadors to Nepal. First, it was Ranjit Rae in the Hindustan Times on 24 May (In Kathmandu, a Threat To Democracy), then Rakesh Sood wrote in The Hindu on 27 May (The Long Shadow of Political Turmoil in Nepal), after that on 29 May Shyam Saran came out in The Indian Express (India Must Engage in Nepal without Interfering). On the same day, Baburam Bhattarai chimed in with a co-authored comment in The Hindu.

All the pieces had similar arguments, some even had identical sentences. Shyam Saran was the most blunt, writing: ‘India cannot but be engaged politically with events in Nepal, but engagement is not the same as intervention. India and the government must firmly and unambiguously declare that it does not support the revival of the monarchy, which has already been rejected by its people.’

Saran goes on to say that ‘Kathmandu, if not the whole of Nepal’ is convinced that Oli has promised the BJP that he will restore the Hindu monarchy, and keep the Chinese out. Saran urges the Indian government not to remain silent. 

Nepal appears to be caught up in a proxy war for India’s soul between the BJP and the left-liberal secularists. Kathmandu is in unfamiliar terrain: no longer do we have to balance India vs China, or the US vs USSR, now we have to learn to tread carefully and not be sucked into India’s bitter internal ideological confrontation.

It is not just the B.1.167.2 virus variant that is coming to Nepal from India, we are also being infected by its toxic politics. It is unwise for Oli to hitch his wagon to Modi, or for his enemies with anyone else in India. Nepal’s internal squabbles are our own, if we value our sovereignty we should keep outsiders out of it.