By Maila Baje
Who would’ve really thought the Indian and Chinese presidents one day would be vying with each other so feverishly to visit Nepal first. Okay, neither Pranab Mukherjee nor Xi Jinping seems that desperate. But you get the drift.
Watch for what is said as well as what is not. The Indians never felt the need to deny that K.P. Oli had to exit Baluwatar because he coveted that northern alliance a bit too much for his own good. Their sense of triumphalism says it all.
When Nepal flashed the ‘China card’ in the past, the Indians could easily mock the palace for indulging in such a blatant anti-people ploy. The mandarins up north weren’t exactly helpful, either.
When the Indians locked Nepal in that economic stranglehold in 1989-1990 for having bought anti-aircraft guns from China, lost in the story was the fact that Beijing had tempted us with lucrative prices. When the Panchayat system collapsed as a result, the Chinese joined the chorus denouncing how despicable the partyless system was.
After the royal takeover of February 2005, Beijing was no doubt the principal external beneficiary. Tightening the noose on Tibetan exiles, the palace-led government sought to correct Nepal’s southern and western drift the Chinese had begun grumbling about in public.
Beijing got observer status in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. What did the Nepali government that had so strenuously pushed China’s case get? Zero, zip, zilch, nada. Once the royal government collapsed, the Chinese swiftly changed their ambassador so that he could be the first foreign envoy to present credentials to the prime minister, who was officiating as head of state.
Republican Nepal didn’t fare much better. When Pushpa Kamal Dahal as prime minister attempted to publicly reconfigure Nepal geopolitical locus, the Indians didn’t seem too bothered. The seven parties arrayed against the monarchy were still available to tame the Maoists. After Dahal’s departure from Singha Darbar, Beijing seemed to cultivate the hardliners in the Maoists, eventually emboldening them to break away.
Oli’s ‘China card’, however, proved to be different. From the outset, it reminded the Indians that the game had two players. Beijing seemed anxious to demonstrate that this time, it meant business. Sure, things are still pro forma on the Sino-Nepali front. The legacy of distrust on both sides may not be at the level of Nepal-India relations in scope as well as in public rancor. But suspicions and skepticism do persist.
Yet the agreements the two governments signed during Oli’s visit to Beijing do provide the basis for concrete action on meaningful cooperation in the event of requisite political commitment. It is Xi’s visit to Nepal everybody’s talking about, not President Bidya Bhandari’s to China. Thus, the immediate task for the Indians is to scuttle a Xi visit, at least before Mukherjee makes a trip, in terms of the battle of perceptions.
This time, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal is not in two minds about which neighbor to visit first. But he still has to figure out which neighboring leader to host first. As for Nepalis, they understand better why they are feeling the squeeze.
The title of being the last tributary to the Middle Kingdom comes with a price, especially when the successor regime draws inspiration from the same imperial ambitions. On the other side, the Indians see Nepal as the unfinished business of independence. These competing claims of sphere of influence aren’t going to be resolved any time soon.
So how’s this for a deal? Let Mukherjee and Xi alight the same aircraft, together, hand in hand, either before or after the Goa BRICS summit in October. The least we can do is provide the plane.
Running in circles around overlapping spheres
By Maila Baje