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29 March, 2016

From buffer state to bridge

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

In the age of imperialism, the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal retained its independence by becoming a buffer state between the expanding British power and the declining Chinese. A landlocked country with fewer than 30 million people, it is now seeking a new role as a bridge between its giant neighbours.

When India became a democratic republic and China came under Communist rule, Nepal maintained its status as the world’s only Hindu kingdom with power in the hands of the Ranas, who were the prime ministers. In the 1950s, anti-Rana forces overthrew the Ranas, ushering in an era of constitutional monarchy with a multi-party political system. Centuries-old cultural ties helped India to develop a special relationship with it.

In 2008, even as the divided polity was grappling with the problem of drawing up a new democratic constitution, an elected assembly put an end to monarchy. The constitution, which came into force last year, declared Nepal a secular republic.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, which was busy expanding its Hindu base at home, was not happy with the development.

The Madhesis, an ethnic group which has ties with people across the Indian border, sought changes in the constitution to safeguard their interests. With the tacit approval of New Delhi, they blocked movement of goods from India, which lasted five months, causing serious shortage of oil, for which the country relied entirely on India.

The Madhesi agitation prompted the ruling Communist Party of India-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) to turn to China for assistance. China was ready to help but transport and communication bottlenecks restricted its ability to render quick assistance.

A constitutional amendment which addressed the Madhesi concerns partially led to lifting of the blockade and easing of tension. Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli took an early opportunity to make his first visit to India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed the constitutional amendment but asked for more changes. Oli’s visit ended without the customary joint statement.

Last week Oli visited China, hailing it as an “all-weather friend” that had helped Nepal at times of distress. The two countries signed 10 agreements and issued a joint communiqué which, according to Nepalese commentators, has significant implications for the country’s economic development, democratisation and relations with India.

When the Oli visit was being planned there were reports that the two countries would also sign a deal which would provide for Nepal buying one-third of its fuel requirements from China. This was dropped later and Oli faced criticism at home for yielding to Indian pressure.

The joint communiqué indicated that the fuel trade deal is still on the cards.

One of the agreements envisages feasibility studies on Chinese assistance for exploration of oil and natural gas resources in Nepal.

The most important agreements are those relating to transit facilities through China and road and rail access to its ports. They hold out the prospects of ending Nepal’s near-total dependence on India for contacts with the rest of the world.

The long distance to the Chinese ports may inhibit their wide use. However, when the contemplated road and rail access becomes a reality, Nepal will be able to use ports in Bangladesh, which are not more distant than Kolkata on which it now depends.

One agreement provides for Chinese assistance for the construction of an international airport at Pokhara.

Nepalese journalist Kanak Mani Dixit suggested it was the long blockade by India that emboldened the country’s political class to sign the deal in Beijing. Without the public opinion created as a result of that thoughtless adventurism, no leader, including Oli, would have gone the distance in inking the 10 agreements, he said, adding: “It has suddenly become possible to talk to China as Nepal does with India after decades of running scared.”

Dixit said there was no reason for India to panic as the development of trans-Himalayan linkages would benefit it too. He also felt there was no need for Nepal to be too beholden to Beijing as China, particularly its Tibet region, will also benefit from the agreements.

During Oli’s visit, China expressed full support for Nepal’s new Constitution, over which India still has some reservations. But the possibility of India’s sympathy for Madhesi aspirations emerging as a point of conflict has somewhat lessened with the leadership of that ethnic group establishing direct communications with China too.

Nepal’s hopes of becoming a bridge can only succeed if its big neighbours are able to rise above the strategic concepts of the imperial phase. There have been suggestions from some quarters that Nepal should restore monarchy and become a Hindu kingdom again to check the growth of Chinese influence. That will be a case of the cure being worse than the disease.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 29, 2016.

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