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Beijing via New Delhi?

BY MAILA BAJE
If the idea of Nepal publicly felicitating Indian Prime Minister NarendraModi continues to gall many Nepalis, it’s not hard to fathom why. The wounds inflicted by New Delhi’s 2015-2016 economic blockade are still raw.
But, then, there’s the flip side. What kind of fella could even contemplate accepting such honors with a straight face? Maybe the kind that doesn’t think the blockade was a blockade?
In some ways, we’re an odd lot. When Indian prime ministers successively ignored us in their international travels, we were sore. When Prime Minister Modi arrives here on his third trip in four years, we seem no less upset. Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping continues to dangle the prospect that he might deign to visit us. Instead of anger, it’s our anticipating that keeps building.
Things have gotten so bad that Sher Bahadur Deuba, leader of the opposition Nepali Congress – not your typical India-baiter – has been describing Oli’s southern strategy as lampasarbad[‘prostratification’] with great relish. Deuba’s critics in his faction-ridden party agree on one thing: failure to call the blockade a blockade cost them votes. You can tell how stung Oli is by that appellation by his exertions in rebutting it.
The Indians, meanwhile, are working overtime to project Modi’s visit as a pilgrimage. It has a pleasant ring, more than enough to assuage the most unenthusiastic host. What that could also mean is that the Indians have decided that Nepal is the best place to test their soft-power strategy. The leader of a Hindu nationalist party up for re-election can see how doubly delightful the visit can be. But what if that kinder and gentler strategy also contains a hardening of India’s commitment to pursue what it wants.
In other words, if cultural/religious affinity also means that one side can force its way to tapping into it for purely domestic reasons at will, that should be cause for concern. And all the more so when Kamal Thapa, the president of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal – the prime advocate for the restoration of Hindu statehood in Nepal – is on record criticizing Oli’s alacrity to indulge Modi’s sudden devotion to faith-based diplomacy.
It doesn’t look like we can look up north for succor in this instance. ‘Tis the season of China-India geniality, at least in terms of style. Trilateral or trans-Himalayan cooperation, call it what you will. There seems to be a pronounced proclivity in New Delhi and Beijing to treat Kathmandu jointly. Trumpian capriciousness may have become riotous elsewhere, but it has cultivated some certainty here.
The two principal protagonists may never be able to figure out which beats which in Nepal, Indian geography or Chinese history? But for the Indians and Chinese to even begin debating that, both need a field clear of a third team.
In the best of times, they say familiarity breeds contempt. Modi may want to cozy up to us all he wants, but why does Oli seem giddier than his guest? Bizarre as it may sound, one is forced to ask: Is Modi’s pilgrimage a Chinese precondition for an Oli visit to China?

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