Nepal PM Oli's 'anti-India' tirades, explained: Is China behind Delhi's Kathmandu problem?

The answer lies within the power corridors of Kathmandu

KP Oli Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Oli | Reuters

On Monday, Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli ramped up his anti-India rhetoric by indirectly blaming New Delhi for attempts to oust him. "Efforts are being made to remove me from power, but that will not succeed,” Oli claimed, without naming anybody directly.

He said: "I have smelt undercurrents of movements. There have been various kinds of activities in the embassies and hotels," he claimed, adding that if you listened to the news media from Delhi, you will get the gist. "In the past, when I signed trade agreements with Beijing, my minority government collapsed. But, this time, we have a government with a full-fledged majority, so no one can remove me now,” Oli said.

The allegations have landed Oli in hot water, with rival factions in his own party calling for his resignation and slamming the comments as "neither politically correct, nor diplomatically appropriate".

Oli's claims came after he redrew the country's political map by incorporating three strategically key Indian territories. "I did not commit any mistake by claiming our land, which has been snatched from us for the past 58 years after Nepal enjoyed the rights over these areas for 146 years," Oli said.

Nepal this month completed the process of redrawing the country's political map through a Constitutional amendment, incorporating three strategically important Indian areas that lie close to a geographically significant tri-junction with China (Tibet). India has termed as "untenable" the "artificial enlargement" of the territorial claims by Nepal after its Parliament unanimously approved the new political map of the country featuring Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura areas which India maintains belong to it.

The India-Nepal bilateral ties came under strain after Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated a 80-km-long strategically crucial road connecting the Lipulekh pass with Dharchula in Uttarakhand on May 8. Nepal reacted sharply to the inauguration of the road claiming that it passed through Nepalese territory. India rejected the claim asserting that the road lies completely within its territory.

The region has always been a point of contention between the two countries. The Nepalese claims against the Indian maps were that, according to the Sugauli treaty between Nepal and British India in 1815, Mahakali River that runs through the Kalapani area was acknowledged as the boundary between the two countries. Indo-Tibetan border police patrols the region. The Sugauli treaty and the Kalapani territorial dispute are resurrected from the dead at regular intervals by Nepalese politicians.

However, the Indian road construction wasn't an unprecedented shift in status quo that merited as strong a reaction as was seen in Kathmandu, according to a Brookings report: "India has been in effective possession of this territory for at least sixty years, although Nepal claims it conducted a census there in the early 1950s and refers to the 1815 Sugauli Treaty as legitimising its claims. But India’s new road, up to the Lipulekh pass, is not an unprecedented change in the status quo. India has controlled this territory and built other infrastructure here before, besides conducting its administration and deploying military forces up to the border pass with China."

The boundary aside, Oli has also been raising Indian heckles with comments about Indian coronavirus being “more lethal than Chinese or Italian virus” and blaming the spurt in Nepalese cases on Indian entry through illegal channels.

What is up with Kathmandu's new-found defiance? Army Chief M.M. Naravane hinted strongly at Chinese hands behind the statements when he said that Oli's protests were at the "behest of someone else". That might be true, but the larger answer to the question can only be found within Kathmandu's inner power struggles.

Nepal's balancing act with India and China

For much of Nepal's history, it has had to play a balancing game between the two Asian giants. For India, Nepal was a critical buffer between its borders and Chinese-controlled Tibet. For China, Nepal was a country that provided a crucial entry point—a gateway—to Tibet and it wanted to ensure that Nepal with its significant Tibetan populace was always within its embrace, and did not become a frolicking ground for anti-China rebels.

Ties between India and Nepal have always been strong and generational. With the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship, Indian and Nepalese citizens could reside, gain citizenship and work in the other's country. A large number of Nepali expats (about 80 lakh) reside in India, and the country is one of Nepal's largest foreign remittance sources. Moreover, there are the military ties too. The Indian Army chief is ceremonially conferred the title of honorary general of the Nepal Army, and Nepali Gorkhas are an important regiment of the Indian Army. Throughout history, India has chosen to back democratic forces in Nepal, while China has largely sought inroads into all of the power centres. 

But, fissures have always existed between the two countries—mainly the Nepalese complaints of Indian "big brother" attitude and “interventions in Nepal's domestic politics". The earlier monarchs in Nepal (before the country became a republic) like King Mahendra and King Gyanendra tilted heavily towards China as a way to balance out India. When the new Nepalese constitution was drawn, India expressed consternation over the omission of Madhesi (Indian-origin Nepalese) concerns. In the events that followed, ties with Nepal came under a cloud.

Madhesis launched a six-month-long blockade along the Indian border (which Nepal alleged was with Indian support), in which more than 50 people were killed. The agitation crippled Nepal's economy as supplies from India were blocked.

Since then, China has been active in Nepal and has invested hugely, helping the landlocked country in laying new roads including connecting it to Tibet for the transportation of petroleum and other essential products, ostensibly to help Kathmandu cut dependence on India. China is also planning to lay a strategic railway network connecting Kathmandu and Shigatse in Tibet where it would join an existing railway line to Lhasa, Tibet's capital. China has also offered Nepal four ports for shipment of goods to the country which previously had to rely heavily on routes through India.

Oli's internal troubles

Oli is facing a lot of issues internally. There is growing rift between him and his Nepal Communist Party's (NCP) executive chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal "Prachanda". Prachanda has a tight hold over the party, while the prime minister's faction—under increasing public duress owing to COVID-19 failures—is fearful of a coup attempt. Prachanda has been critical of Oli's coronavirus handling, and has time and again spoken about lack of coordination between the government and the party, and he was pressing for one-man one position system to be followed by the NCP. Prime Minister Oli had turned deaf ear towards Prachanda's advice to form an all-party committee to monitor the country's COVID-19 situation and the government's strategy to contain it.

On Tuesday, Prachanda demanded Oli's resignation, saying his recent anti-India remarks were "neither politically correct nor diplomatically appropriate". Besides Prachanda, senior leaders Madhav Kumar Nepal, Jhalanath Khanal, Bamdev Gautam and Narayankaji Shrestha also asked Oli to provide evidence of his accusation and asked to quit the power.

Besides the border, there are other issues at play too within the NCP. Oli wants the Parliament to ratify the $500 million US Millennium Challenge Corporation agreement, while the Prachanda faction fears it is an American move to push Kathmandu into its sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and away from China. In fact, Nepal's biggest foreign policy challenge going forward will be dealing with the contending initiatives of China’s BRI and the US Indo-Pacific strategy (with key players like India, Japan and Australia).

In the midst of all this, the Kalapani issue was a godsend for Oli to pitch up a nationalist frenzy and divert attention from the intra-party and civilian discontent issues plaguing his administration. The parliament move to ratify a new map showing Kalapani as a part of Nepal also allowed the NCP to put on a united face in the House.

China has been playing an active role in the intra-party dispute. Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi has been holding discussions with top NCP leaders, including former prime ministers. China does not want the infighting to destabilise the Nepalese communist government. Hou met Prachanda and other leaders of his faction at their residences in Kathmandu in May, and discussed different aspects of the close relation between the two countries.

Hou discussed the ongoing internal crisis in the ruling party, China’s assistance to Nepal to fight COVID-19 and Nepal’s support against the international politicisation of the coronavirus where a number of countries including the US are trying to hold Beijing accountable for the pandemic, The Kathmandu Post reported. The Chinese envoy earlier met Prachanda for about an hour. The envoy also met PM Oli.

Is there a Chinese hand behind the Nepal hostilities?

According to the Brookings report: "The border dispute between India and Nepal was brewing for many months and years, so it is unreasonable to blame China for creating the crisis. The counter-factual is clear: even if we hypothetically imagined China away, Prime Minister Oli and Nepali nationalists would always have reacted negatively to the Indian road announcement. This, however does not mean that Beijing has not supported or further instigated Kathmandu to take on a more assertive position, especially against the backdrop of the China-India military standoff in Ladakh."

Can China replace India for Nepal?

Nepal is dependent on India for the supply of essential goods and China cannot be an alternative to India as far as the supply of essentials are concerned, courtesy the poor infrastructure along the northern terrain bordering China. “Nepal trading points from Mechi in the east to Mahakali in the west with India, but with the northern neighbour, we only have a few transit points and that also lack infrastructure,” said Posh Raj Pandey, an economist and a member of Nepal’s National Planning Commission.

“Our imports from India account for two-third whereas that from China is just 14 per cent,” Pandey said. Pandey said that Nepal's nearest access to sea from the north is 4,000 kms, which is three times more than the one it is having from the Indian side in Kolkata. “So, our third country trade is being conducted mainly through the southern route,” he said. “As far as our exports are concerned, India receives 60 per cent of our total exports whereas China receives only two per cent. In remittances, we receive around 15 per cent of the total remittances from India and if we compare it with the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), it comes around 4-5 per cent,” Pandey said. 

-Inputs from PTI