“Chal, chal re Kathmandu, milenge wahan Shambhu…" The Kishore Kumar song from the 1977 movie Ram Bharose always comes to one's mind while pondering over the relations between India and Nepal.
The two countries not only share an open border and unhindered movement of people but also have close bonds through Hinduism, marriages and family ties.
But things have changed a lot now.
It all started with the inauguration of an 80-km long link road to Kailash Mansarovar through the Lipulekh Pass.
The Nepal government, led by Prime Minister K.P.S. Oli, protested immediately contending that the road crosses territory it accused India of changing status quo without consultations. India responded claiming that the road lies completely within its territory which has effectively been in its possession since last over 60 years even though Nepal has been claiming it by referring to the 1815 Sugauli Treaty.
India’s new road map 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 its forces up to the border pass with China.
In a 2015 statement, China also recognized India’s sovereignty by agreeing to expand trade through the Lipulekh Pass. This is also an important route for thousands of Hindus who trek across the border to China every year to visit sacred Kailsh Mansarovar for pilgrimage.
The Oli government released its own map which incorporated the territories of Lipulekh, Kalapani, and Limpiyadhura as the part of Nepal. As expected, India protested but Oli went ahead, and on June 13 the Nepali Parliament passed the amendment paving the way for constitutional legitimacy of the map.
For Oli , it was a win-win situation as it managed to divert people's attention from pressing internal issues.
The anti-India politics of Oli banking on hot nationalism among Nepalis had its origin since 2015 when Nepal adopted its new constitution. Oli replaced the incumbent Prime Minister Sushil Kumar Koirala and managed to remain for a few months.
It was the time when Nepal was witnessing violent protests by the Madhesis, Tharu, and other ethnic minorities whose rights were infringed in the new constitution.
As the border was sealed and coalition parties withdrew support, Oli blamed India for the fall of his government and economic blockade. A year later, in 2017, two communist parties—the Maoist led by Prachanda and Marxist-Leninist-led by Oli—merged to form Nepal Communist Party.
Oli won the general elections on anti-India sentiment due to blockade. After coming to power, Oli called for the reassessment of the 1950 India-Nepal Treaty. He made a clear shift to China and joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Beijing’s influence over PM Oli is no secret. It is worth noting that Nepal raised the border ruckus when Indian Army and PLA of China are engrossed in a serious faceoff in Ladakh. The perception is that China’s interference in decisions made by Kathmandu has increased considerably.
It is believed that China played an important role in the alliance of the two communist parties of Nepal. In the past, China had kept itself aloof from the local politics of other countries but the new China under President Xi Jinping follows the ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy and has a ruthless approach.
China’s ambassador in Kathmandu Hou Yanqi is very "active" and it has been widely reported how the Chinese have been mediating between the different fractions to keep NCP and PM Oli in power.
Oli has been fighting for his survival since May this year. Opposition parties, and even some of his comrades in the ruling Nepal Communist Party, have been demanding PM's resignation claiming that he has lost the moral ground to lead the government after several corruption scandals, including one for the procurement of Covid-19 kits.
Oli was struggling to remain in power when a god-sent opportunity arrived. On May 8, India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh "virtually inaugurated" a new 80-km road in Himalayas connecting to the border with China at the Lipulekh Pass.
The beleaguered PM used the old "border dispute" to his advantage.
As President Bidya Devi Bhandari prorogued the ongoing budget session of Parliament Thursday after receiving a recommendation from the cabinet earlier in the day, Oli heaved a sigh of relief. It saved his government from facing the no confidence motion in parliament.
The rival faction of the ruling party led by Pushp Kamal Dahal is still pushing for his resignation while Oli continues to accuse a few Nepali leaders and India of making efforts to topple his government, a claim strongly refuted by New Delhi.
The drama isn't ending soon. India would do well to keep a careful watch on each and every development taking place in Nepal even as it continues to support the country in the fight against Covid-19..