Is China the new blockade in Indo-Nepal relations?

The past few months have been abuzz with the significant changes in the Indo-Nepal relations, which are nothing short of a cause for alarm.

The relations between the two which can be traced to more than a century ago, have not witnessed the best of days ever since the former Hindu kingdom adopted its new constitution in September 2015.

The issue of the Madhesi community has been a bone of contention between the two nations. The Madhesis accuse the Nepalese government of their improper representation in the constitution. Their demand for a separate province has caused a stir on both sides of the border. Not to forget, the strong traditional and cultural ties the community has with the Indian state of Bihar in particular.

The economic blockade that followed has brought the day-to-day life in Nepal to a standstill. Nepal is highly dependent on India for fuel, oil and medicines with India providing more than 60% of its supplies. In its absence, the country is facing a crisis of sorts. And moreover, the limited supplies that are being brought into the country are being sold in black at exorbitant prices. According to a news channel, gas cylinders are being sold for as much as ₹6000 each.

India remarked that, Nepal should adopt a constitution that is more inclusive of its population and that the ‘political problem requires a political solution’. On the other hand, Nepal is wary about India’s intentions with regards to the economic blockade and its support for the Madhesis.

The blame game could not be left far behind. Nepal’s accusation of India intervening in its internal affairs has given legitimacy to the voices of others in the subcontinent like Bangladesh, Pakistan and especially China. They too have long accused New Delhi for snooping around their internal matters.

Let’s not forget India’s large economic clout. It has been the major supplier to Nepal for its essential goods and services. The devastating earthquake that hit Nepal in April last year also saw increased assistance from India. One can say between China and India, the latter enjoyed much better privileges in Nepal than the former.

Following the stand-off, Nepal has been forced to look beyond our nation. Asking for Chinese assistance was the only choice it was left with. And China did provide support to the country in the time of a grave crisis. It provided about 1000 metric tonnes of petroleum after India’s pompous behaviour following the adoption of the Nepalese constitution which didn’t get down too well with India.

But it would be imprudent to assume that China extended a heartfelt gesture only on humanitarian grounds. In global politics, every action has a reason, a strategic reason to be precise. The reason for China trying to be a friendly neighbour in wake of dwindling Indo-Nepalese ties is not difficult to comprehend, leaving India to be perceived as the ‘bad boy’ one more time.

Why is India so concerned with what is happening across the border?

As mentioned above, India’s support for the Madhesis is because of the latter’s age-old ties with the former. A huge number of Madhesis in Nepal had migrated from India. Members of the same community also reside in Bihar.

Moreover, amidst all the protest, India does not want to project itself as a mute spectator. It’s not surprising that a country’s political influence in a region is largely influenced by its mediating power and even more so when the people in question have a strong affiliation with India. But the fact of the matter is that this is no way for India to show its strength. Trying to act as the boss will only devoid it of its friends, the signs of which are becoming quite visible. In a real friendship there are no leaders and followers.

India’s behaviour will create problems for it. We have already seen one such instance in its loss in the recent assembly elections of Bihar.

If New Delhi doesn’t have anything to do with the blockade and it truly is a result of what’s happening inside Nepal, then nonetheless it can still play an important role in ensuring peace and stability in the region without using the upper hand.

The recent end of the impasse following Nepal’s decision to amend the constitution has been hailed by India as a ‘positive step’. But the Madhesis are not satisfied with the solution package and see it as a vague and insufficient one.

What follows will be a crucial step that will reflect whether the two nations go back to being the old pals that they have been or there will be another cloud on the horizon.

Nandini Sinha