Also published by CENJOWS on 29 Oct 20
Nepal’s Precarious Balancing Act
Growing Chinese Influence
China has intensified its efforts to wean away its neighbours in the recent past. Nepal has been wooed by the Chinese thorough a host of infrastructure projects and Chinese Confucius Study Centres all over the country especially along the Indo – Nepal border in UP and West Bengal. China has heavily invested during Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s Beijing visit in June 2018, the two sides’ inked deals worth $2.4 bn, including in infrastructure, energy projects and for a cross-Himalayan railway line. China is also constructing the Pokhra Airport at a cost of $215 million. Traffic of Chinese tourists has also increased steadily and as per some estimates, it is likely to increase to half a million by end of 2020. Many experts attribute this to the backlash caused due to 2015 economic blockade by India forcing Nepal to turn to China. Given the increasing influence of the Chinese in Nepal, a large number of Nepali people now speak fluent Chinese. The ultimate manifestation of these development was reflected when Nepal raised objection to the Lipulekh road in Central Sector bordering India – China – Nepal. The road will connect the Kailash Mansarovar via the Dharchula pass. Nepal added salt to the injury when it redrew its political map through a constitutional amendment that incorporated the three strategically important Indian areas of Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura in Nepal. Efforts of China need to be taken cognizance off and responded appropriately. Despite China making concerted forays in Nepal and PM Oli of Nepal leaning towards a fellow communist country, India enjoys tremendous soft power advantage with Nepal given our traditional cultural and social linkages.
Resilient Army to Army Relationship
Most robust linkage between India and Nepal is the relationship between Indian and Nepali Armies. Over 25,000 Nepalese currently serve in the Indian Army’s seven Gorkha Rifles (Ist, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 8th, 9th and 11th), each of which has five to six battalions (800 plus soldiers each), drawing basically from Rais and Limbus of eastern Nepal and Gurungs and Magars from the west. A number of Nepalese Army officers and soldiers do their initial and in service training in India. In honour of the Indian Army the President of Nepal confers the Honorary Chief of Nepalese Army status to the Indian Army Chief as soon as he takes over as Chief of Indian Army. Accordingly, the Indian Army Chief was to visit Nepal in February, but due to COVID crisis, the visit was postponed. The Army Chief is now scheduled to visit Nepal in November. India must seize this opportunity to wean away Nepal back to Indian fold. Even PM Oli of Nepal has realised that it is extremely difficult to survive without having Indian support despite the Chinese overtures for a number of reasons. The most important being economic dependence and access to Kolkata port.
Making Grounds for a Successful Visit
PM Oli having realised the indispensable nature of a strong Indo – Nepal relationship, has replaced his Dy PM and Defence Minister shunted out the country’s deputy PM Ishwar Pokhrel out of the defence ministry. The move is seen as an effort to reset ties with its giant neighbour India, people familiar with the matter said. As defence minister, Ishwar Pokhrel had been one of India’s sharpest critics in PM Oli’s cabinet. By shutting out the Defence Minister Oli has created the necessary environment the success of General Mukund Naravane’s visit. General Narawane was earlier instrumental in the success of his earlier visit to Myanmar with Indian Foreign Secretary Mr. Shringla. India by offering a range of defence equipment and a Kilo Class submarine have virtually pulled out Myanamar from the Chinese influence. This augurs well for regional security, stability, and growth of the region besides providing strategic advantage to India.
Offering a Helping Hand to
Nepal is important for India strategically as any dispute in the central sector along the India – China – Nepal border area can be easily exploited by China in collusion with Nepal to threaten our important Hindu religious pilgrimage sites such as Badrinath and Kedarnath. Some defence experts accord even greater importance than the Chicken Neck formed by Chumbi Valley in the Silliguri Corridor. Therefore, it is important for India to keep Nepal on its side not only due to economic viewpoint but also from a strategic perspective. Accordingly, like Myanmar visit, the Army Chief must be enabled and empowered by the Government to offer economic, military, and social package. There is scope of joint ventures in hydroelectricity power generation. Infrastructure development in Pokhra. Although, the Chinese have been given the award for construction of Pokhra – Lumbuni Railway line it may be worth a while to give a counter offer to construct a railway connectivity between Gorakhpur and Pokhra. It would not only cement our friendship but also help 25000 strong Gorakha Soldiers to travel to Nepal by train. Similarly, India has put on hold the new Butwal-Gorakhpur cross-border transmission line because it is not commercially viable. India may consider taking up the project once again on strategic grounds.
To conclude it will be in India’s interest to have a friendly buffer between us and China not only on economic grounds but more so on strategic considerations. India can do well to restrict the list of adversaries to two. It definitely would not be in an envious position with a not so friendly Nepal in our front yard. Towards this end, the Chief’s visit must be utilized as a strategic opportunity to further our interests.