PM Narendra Modi's Policy of "Neighbourhood First" Requires Fresh Diplomatic Initiatives
The Left Alliance in Nepal scores stunning victory raising hopes of stability in India's neighbourhood.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi might have to rework his "neighbourhood first" diplomatic initiative as it has failed to deliver or remove the irritants in this country's relationship with some of its immediate neighbours particularly Nepal.
The Left Alliance has recorded a stunning electoral victory in that country brightening the prospects of K P Oli regaining power as the Prime Minister in Kathmandu. The Himalayan nation has the strength and the opportunity now to deliver on governance and development following the abolition of monarchy.
This assumes significance as the Communist alliance has come to power with nearly 70 per cent of the 165 Parliamentary seats decided by the first past-the-post system. Another 110 seats will be decided by proportional representation.
The Nepali Congress, the grand old party of that country has much to introspect as its own ragtag group was found to be wanting. It will now have to gear up to play its role in the opposition.
Oli's return to power is seen as a snub for New Delhi's Nepal policy seeking to bring the Madhesis into the national mainstream of that country leading to a blockade for nearly six months. He was in the forefront against that blockade compelling him to look to China as an alternative.
As the Prime Minister two years back in 2015, he tried to diversify his landlocked country's purchases seeking Beijing's help rather than being solely dependent on India. New Delhi backed a Maoist alliance led by Prachanda and the Nepali Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba had fallen by the wayside in the elections. That put New Delhi in a tight spot.
Even as efforts were made to assuage the feelings of Oli, Kathmandu made its displeasure known in no uncertain way that Oli had been denied access to Modi. The results of the elections has given a boost that Nepal can have a stable arrangement especially as it has seen ten governments in the last decade leading to instability and corruption, adversely affecting growth coupled with a poor recovery from a devastating earthquake in 2015 killing 9000 people.
Nepal is seen as the natural buffer between the two Asian giants --India and China -- with the latter seemingly enjoying the upper hand. Avid Nepal watchers and analysts believe that Modi needs to review his much touted "neighbourhood first" initiative on becoming the Prime Minister in May 2014 which has failed with with regard to Kathmandu.
There are apparent inadequacies in this policy which needs to be rectified. It must go to India's credit that the Modi government got into the act without wasting much time by providing urgent relief in the wake of the massive earthquake two years back.
The two neighbours share a special bond by having an open border with Nepalese nationals living and working in this country besides serving in the Indian Army. However, bilateral relations took a turn for the worse when the neighbour's new Constitution appeared to ignore political representation to the Madhesis constituting nearly half of Nepal's population.
India blamed the Madhesis for the blockade who were demanding amendments to the new Constitution. On its part Beijing worked behind the scenes in bringing together the Communists and the Maoists. The victory of the Leftist alliance is bound to bolster China's influence in Nepal. New Delhi and Beijing have been trying to exert their influence in the immediate neighbourhood. China's strategy has been to weigh down small nations with massive economic assistance and infrastructure projects catching them on the back-foot with humongous loans as evidenced with several small countries including the Maldives.
This has the portends of leading to increasing Chinese presence in India's immediate neighbourhood which this country does not want. It may be recalled that Oli visited China after a visit to New Delhi where he signed a transit agreement that included access to Chinese ports as well as construction of rail links between the two countries.
These are attempts by Nepal to reduce its dependence on India for trade and commerce as well as essential supplies. Under these circumstances New Delhi's diplomatic role with Kathmandu is bound to get complicated. Nevertheless, India wants that the Madhesis get a fair representation in Nepal's polity. Any turmoil among the Madhesis can have an adverse impact in this country.
Even as political stability in Nepal is in India's interest, does it need to meddle in that country's politics. That question apart, what cannot be lost sight of is the rise of China and its efforts to develop allies in South Asia having the portends of altering the rules of engagement in this subcontinent. It is time that New Delhi undertakes some fresh diplomatic strategies.
(Views are personal)