Context: Nepal’s Parliament recently cleared a Constitution Amendment Bill that endorses the country’s new map that includes territories with India - Limpiadora, Lipulekh and Kalapani. 

More on the news:

  • Earlier, the Nepal Prime Minister in a speech had said that those areas would be brought within Nepal’s map and possession. 
  • This has been a troubled phase in Nepal-India relations, often described as unique, time-tested and cemented by common heritage, culture, civilisation, history and geography.
  • Previous standoffs have been effectively resolved through direct negotiations, back-channel diplomacy and an accommodative spirit on both sides.

Historical background:

Favouring India: 

  • Nepal convincingly assured India in the 1960s that a road built to connect Nepal with Tibet had only developmental significance and no strategic significance at all.
  • In 1962, King of Nepal gave the Kalapani location temporarily to India on Prime Minister India’s request following India’s setback in the war with China. 
  • In the 1980s, King Birendra annulled a contract that China had won under a global tender to build the 210-km Kohalpur Banbasa Road closer to the Indian border, after Indian government  raised concerns over security. Birendra handed the task over to India.

All these are seen as instances of Nepali rulers maintaining a delicate balance in relations with two giant neighbours, but eventually favouring the south whenever India and China’s interests have clashed.

The turning point:

  • Ouster of monarchy: A 12-point understanding among Nepal’s eight political parties including Maoists, signed in 2005 in Delhi, scripted the ouster of the monarchy.
  • India losing its clout: India was for long a sole external actor in Nepal’s internal politics. But when India openly took the lead role in transforming Nepal into a secular republic from a Hindu kingdom, it set off events leading to India losing its clout and allies in Nepal.
  • The suspension of the monarchy and its subsequent abolition in 2008, and declaration of Nepal as a secular country, was followed by Nepal’s journey towards federalism. None of these crucial issues was discussed at length in Parliament.
    • This led to resentment among the majority population about this “imposed secularism”. 
  • Beginning of Chinese investments: China, worried about the combined presence of India, US and EU in Nepal began increasing its presence and investment in Nepal, targeting tourism, post-earthquake reconstruction, trade and energy.

The Maoists, who are now part of the ruling NCP are no longer under Indian influence.

Relations, then and now: Two major questions that crop up in the context of bilateral context. 

  • Why did China’s clout increase to this level when India apparently calculated that the monarchy’s exit will increase its own influence on Nepal? 
  • And does India have any institutional allies left in Nepal, like the monarchy and Nepali Congress like in the pre-2005 phase?
  • Erroneous judgment of India in 2006: Supporting Maoists as the emerging forces of the people and bringing them to the centrestage of Nepali politics and power to consolidate democracy.
  • Change in India’s approach: Over the years, India’s focus on Nepal appears driven more by security concerns and threat perception than by promoting a soft power-based approach like in the past.
  • India’s only ally: Besides the monarchy, Nepali Congress and in the recent past Madhes parties are the only other institutional ally that India has had is the Nepal army. 

In the current sentiment triggered by the border dispute, the idea of nationalism has once again been appropriated by the Nepali Communist leaders who have all through concentrated state powers upon themselves. During the current spell of dispute, India has once again begun ‘valuing’ common civilisational , cultural, historic and people to people ties.