Foreign Affairs

Will Oli’s rise bring Indo-Nepal thaw?

With the rise of KP Sharma Oli–Chairman of the second largest party Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), at the helm of affairs in Kathmandu, one of the major concerns doing the rounds in both the capitals has been its impact on the Indo-Nepal relations.

Is there any possibility of bilateral relation normalizing anytime soon?

The answer is not easy.

The victory of Oli’s alliance has widely been seen as a setback to India, which had favoured the continuation of previous Sushil Koirala’s government.

Interestingly, until very recently many assumed Oli as a ‘pro-Indian’ leader.  But suddenly around the time the long-delayed constitution drafting picked up the speed in Kathmandu, he was seen as a key hand who defied the so-called ‘orders from Delhi’ and stood united with his allies from Nepali Congress and Maoists to pass the constitution.

That the Kathmandu was abuzz with unconfirmed reports of India backing then Prime Minister Sushil Koirala against Oli in the prime ministerial race helped further the perception that he was not Delhi’s first choice.

In fact, the last minute decision of Koirala to stand in the election for new prime minister – despite his earlier so-called gentleman’s agreement to hand over the torch to Oli – and the decision of agitating Madhesi parties to back Koirala was also seen as another ‘proof’ of Delhi’s hand in bringing Koirala and agitating parties together against Oli.

But with strong support from the Maoists, and the royalists and with eleventh hour deal with one of the Madhesi parties, Oli clinched the deal to Delhi’s chagrin.

More interestingly, India wasted no time in reaching out to the newly elected prime minister. Narendra Modi made a phone call minutes after his election to congratulate, and extend an invitation to visit Delhi ‘at the earliest.’

The phone call was followed by a statement from Indian Embassy, which was markedly warmer than the ones it had issued just after the promulgation of constitution three weeks ago.

Though India is not happy with the new Nepal constitution as it thinks that the Madhesis residing in the southern plains of Nepali areas bordering India have been given a raw deal, it lost no time in engaging with the new government in Kathmandu.

However, just on the eve of Nepal’s biggest festival of Dashain, India is accused of continuing to impose blockade cutting off supplies of fuel and essential goods to India-dependent and land-locked Nepal causing tremendous hardships to ordinary folks. While Delhi maintains that the blockade is due to insecurity caused by the presence of agitators on Nepalese side of the border, the fact that it is seen as controlling the flow of fuel-carrying tankers and even refusing to load Nepalese tankers in depots deep inside Indian territory indicate otherwise.

Notwithstanding the bitterness in the relations, the new Nepal PM Oli has not wasted any time to show that his government is willing to mend ties with India and end the current episode of ‘unannounced blockade’.

The first meeting of Oli’s cabinet tasked the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa to hold talks with India. Thapa, who heads the Hindu monarchist party, is traveling to Delhi on Saturday at the invitation of Sushma Swaraj.

It is, therefore, interesting that Oli who had been seen as one of Delhi’s favourites since 1990s after his active role in getting the Indo-Nepal Mahakali Treaty, the controversial water treaty which many think gives more benefits to India, ratified by then parliament, is now being painted as someone Delhi inherently dislikes.

Apart from his win despite Delhi’s misgivings, there is little evidence to corroborate those allegations.

However, the speed with which Delhi warmed immediately upon his election has led many analysts to believe that India harbours no qualms in dealing with him.

Oli has already called the disgruntled groups to formal talks and showed his readiness to amend the constitution to incorporate their ‘genuine demands’.

Many believe that this will eventually help mend ties with India, as well, which has  been calling for the amendment of new constitution through the broadest possible consensus by accommodating concerns of the agitating parties.

Main problem is, while these processes may take some time, the continued situation of blockade is threatening to disrupt the festivities of millions of Nepalis and is adding to the anti-Delhi sentiments among the ordinary people. The festival of Dashain, is a period when hundreds of thousands of Nepalese return to their native villages. But with fuel shortage, they will find it very difficult to travel to their homes. And they won’t find it too difficult to identify who is to blame.