Maj Gen Ashok Mehta (retd)
Nepal is back in the news with at least three seminars held this month in Lucknow and New Delhi. Nepal was the second country in the subcontinent that Narendra Modi had visited, after Bhutan, when he had begun his first term as Prime Minister. His second stint as PM started with a visit to the Maldives and will be followed later this month by his second trip to Bhutan. Nepal appears to be drifting away from India, drawn by China. This is a strategic negation of India’s primacy in Nepal.
The seminar organised by the Army's Central Command — which is operationally responsible for portions of the central sector facing China as well as Nepal in the event of a natural calamity like the earthquake in 2015 where it was the first responder and/or restoring an adverse military situation — took an immediate and long view of Nepal. The big takeaways were: a marked slump in India-Nepal relations; formation for the first time of a new Left-Nepal Communist Party with a near two-thirds majority in the lower house, majority in the upper house, governments in six or seven provinces and victories in 80 per cent of the local body elections; China's phenomenal rise and role in the political transformation of Nepal. The government enjoys rare political stability that allows it to focus on making Nepal economically prosperous.
In the new dynamic following the Maoist civil war, Nepal has become a federal, secular, democratic and inclusive republic with a new constitution — that India wanted changed after it had been approved by the cabinet — and monarchy dismantled. India-Nepal relations are at the lowest in recent history, with anti-India sentiment which had hit the clouds in 2015-17 after the economic blockade, now simmered down. New Delhi has followed a hands-off policy, abandoning the alleged micro-management of Nepal and concentrating on economic development — competing with China — and the delivery deficit.
Back in 1770, King Prithvi Narayan Shah had observed that Nepal is a root vegetable between two giant boulders: China and India. China-Nepal relations have swayed in the wind, tilting towards either China or India, whichever was stronger despite its policy of equidistance. China is now the ascendant power and will maintain its primacy at least till 2021 when elections are due. Previously, it was Nepal that played the China card to guard its sovereign space; now China operates independently. After the clumsy economic blockade of 2015, India has lost the goodwill of ordinary Nepalese, with Beijing drawing maximum mileage from the anti-India sentiment. It has offered alternative trade and transit facilities to bypass another border blockade, pledged a China-Nepal economic corridor under the BRI and upgraded relations in political, economic, military, cultural and people-to-people levels.
Further, the Nepalese media is pointedly pro-China and visibly anti-India. Nepal does not view China as a threat but kowtows to it in respect of Tibet, Dalai Lama, the 17 northern districts contiguous to Tibet and meets Beijing's every wish and command. In return, China keeps politicians, military, media and members of civil society happy lavishing junkets to China that make Nepal and its opinion makers beholden to Beijing.
Despite this unstoppable rise of China in Nepal, Beijing cannot be an affordable and realistic substitute for India and the open India-Nepal border across which 7 to 10 million Nepalese find succour and livelihood.
The transformation in the balance of Nepal’s relations with India and China in Beijing’s favour is stark and unprecedented. The crux of change is the decline in New Delhi’s clout in Kathmandu, coupled with the stunning rise of Left parties and their political domination in Nepal. A regime change is possible, but not probable. China's advantage — Nepal is there to stay for the foreseeable future.
The implications of India’s loss of Nepal to China can be profound. In 1919, a British Foreign Office document had said that if Nepal were to be disaffected, the internal disorder would spill over to India. During the Maoist insurgency, 2 to 3 million Nepalese had crossed over to India. In 1975, a military study titled Exercise Tribhuvan at the College of Combat, Mhow, had observed that threats posed by China to Nepal were direct and indirect. A Chinese-aided insurgency was on the cards. Direct military aggression by China was considered, but ruled out. India's response to Chinese aggression and pre-emptive measures were war-gamed. The paper recommended that the real threat to Nepal was from internal disaffection against monarchy and that if King Birendra failed to democratise, he would meet the same fate as the Shah of Iran in 1979. A Maoist insurgency took root in 1996, King Birendra’s successor, Gyanendra was evicted from power and the monarchy dismantled.
At present, two threats are palpable: a revival of Maoist insurgency, but not on the earlier scale and not supported by China. A breakaway Maoist (Biplav) group is of nuisance value, but given its numbers, weapons and local support, it could become a serious irritant. In Terai, disaffected Madhesi groups — unhappy with the territorial boundaries of No 2 province and exclusion from the constitution — could implode. Many hill Nepalese think India uses Madhesis as a political and economic pressure points. In both eventualities, anarchy would spill over. A military threat by China through Nepal to the strategic Indo-Gangetic Plain is the worst-case scenario. Like the Southern Command keeps a watch over Sri Lanka and the Maldives, the Central Command's out-of-area contingency mission would be Nepal.
On July 6, Kathmandu refused permission to the 20,000-Tibetan community in Nepal to celebrate the Dalai Lama's 84th birthday. India's setback in Nepal has to be offset by winning back the trust of the Nepalese by helping them in economic development. Countering and rolling back Chinese influence is the challenge. Officers are worried about China-Pakistan collusion in Nepal and fear Beijing which seeks parity with India on its treaty arrangements with Nepal would object to Indian Army use of Nepali Gorkha troops in confronting the PLA. China may also attempt to subvert Gorkha ex-servicemen and serving soldiers in the Indian Army — something that Pakistan has attempted unsuccessfully — one of the biggest pro-India constituencies in Nepal. The Wuhan spirit is missing from Nepal.