The hidden truth: Prachanda’s high stakes game to keep China at bay

Often hailed for sharing a ‘roti-beti ka rishta’, the relationship between India and Nepal is characterised by close cultural, economic and security ties. The two countries, since decades, have shared a very intimate relationship, with an open border allowing citizens from both sides to move freely. While New Delhi has remained the chief military and trade partner for Kathmandu, India happens to be the favourite destination for the citizens of Nepal in order to earn their livelihood as well as for pursuing higher education. Nepal, on the other hand, acts as a buffer zone for India, helping New Delhi address its security and geopolitical concerns in the neighbourhood smoothly.

However, for the past few years, the two intimate neighbours have seen a strained political relationship, majorly over the Kalapani border issue. With the fall of the Oli government and restoration of the pre-2022 setup with Nepali Congress and Maoist alliance back in the centre,there was hope on both sides, which both New Delhi and Kathmandu are realising with an attempt to reset ties.

Prachanda’s India visit: An attempt to reset ties?

Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, the most recent participant in ongoing musical chairs of Prime Ministers of Nepal, was recently on a 4-day visit to India which was majorly being seen as an attempt to amend ties. This was PM  Prachanda’s first abroad visit since assuming office.

After the monarchy was abolished in 2008, the Himalayan country has seen 13 prime ministers. Prachanda is not on the chair for the first time, rather, was forced to resign over allegations of subverting state institutions and rubbing India on the wrong side in 2008. This is Prachanda’s third term as the prime minister and it seems that he wants to make the most of it, at least with strengthening bilateral ties with India, and the recent visit stands in deposition for the same.

It was Prachanda in 2008 who broke the tradition of Nepalese leaders choosing India as their primary destination by visiting China. Fast forward to 2022, as per reports Prachanda had invitations both from Beijing as well as New Delhi. However, the Nepalese Prime Minister put India over China.  Nepal has also put an ongoing military deal on hold. Probably, Kathmandu has learnt necessary lessons from Pakistan and China, the lesson of Chinese debt-trap.

Economics over Politics

Nepalese Prime Minister Prachanda had arrived in India with a massive delegation, from cabinet ministers to businessmen. PM Prachanda had met the Indian President Droupadi Murmu, Vice-President Jagdeep Dhankar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The two Prime Ministers of both the nations held extensive talks on various issues ranging from border, trade, transit, power-generation to cultural exchanges.

Leaders after the meeting, inaugurated a new railway line connecting India to Nepal, which was in the pipeline for a few years. They also announced new hydro-electricity projects and pipelines. Nepal would now be exporting electricity to Bangladesh via India. Talks regarding the same have been on the table for very long. However, since the two countries, Nepal and Bangladesh, do not share borders, the partnership needed India’s grid. Nepal has also gained access to India’s inland waterways, being a landlocked country, this comes as a major boost to the Nepalese economy.

The two state heads also emphasised on resolving the ongoing border issues. While the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi highlighted that the countries are keen on solving the border issues and wish to take the bilateral relationship to Himalayan heights. The Nepalese counterpart, however, urged that resolution of the border issue must take place through “the established bi-lateral diplomatic mechanism”.

Prachanda faces Opposition’s ire, defends India       

Despite Prchanda describing his trip to Delhi as “very successful”, the Opposition has mounted a scathing attack on him regarding his India visit. Nepal’s Opposition parties, including CPN UML, have accused the Prime Minister of a total “sell-out” to India. The Opposition parties also questioned the Akhanda Bharat map placed in India’s new Parliament building. Defending the same he said that the map was not political but a cultural and historic one.

PM Prachanda, despite facing strong opposition back home, has proposed to swap land with India in order to resolve the boundary dispute . Citing suggestions from experts, he has said that the two countries may swap land like India and Bangladesh.

Prachanda needs India and vice-versa

Keeping aside the geopolitical advantages, India has never looked at Nepal from a narrow lens. Rather, India’s interest in Nepal is based upon the policy of Neighbourhood First. India has primarily focussed in boosting Nepal’s development through aids and grants and fostering human relations.

Nepal is not at all in good shape. The Himalayan country continues to be politically unstable and lack of clear majority has kept the Prachanda government on its toes. This was visible during his India visit as well. While the Nepalese Prime Minister held discussions on mutually beneficial areas, the contentious issues were comfortably ignored. While the recruitment of Gorkhas into the Indian Army post the implementation of the Agnipath scheme did not see any light, the leaders emphasised that they wish to resolve the border dispute. However, no road map was prepared upon how the countries are going to achieve the feat. Discussing contentious issues may have triggered major criticism back home.

The economy too is not doing well. The country is facing recession with depleting foreign reserves and high unemployment and inflation. The trade deficit with China has also grown disproportionately. With Beijing’s alleged role in the internal politics of Nepal, the leadership is forced to focus on projects and partnership with India.

Currently, Nepal is surrounded by India whose influence is increasing on the global stage exponentially and expansive China complemented with unstable domestic politics. In this uncomfortable situation, Prachanda needs India as much as New Delhi needs Kathmandu, in order to maintain the status quo.

New Delhi’s attempt to de-Chinify Nepal through Prachanda

Kathmandu cozying up to Beijing has always been a worrisome reason for New Delhi. China’s growing trade with Nepal, Chinese investments in Nepalese infrastructure, its Belt and Road (BRI) initiative expanding its footprint in the northern side too after Pakistan, China had claimed Pokhara International Airport to be a part of BRI which Nepal later denied. All these have put New Delhi in a tough spot.

New Delhi has traditionally been the chief military and economic partner of Kathmandu. With Beijing’s increasing interest in the Himalayan territory, China boosting investments and trade with Nepal has been a concern for India. And Nepal has been playing India and China against each other, getting the best of both the worlds. However, this is not something that would help the nation in the long run and the political leadership knows this. Nepal needs to follow the unsaid rule of south-Asia that is putting India’s interests above China, as every nation is aware of the expansionist aspirations of the dragon.

Neither can New Delhi accept one more debt-trapped nation, nor can it allow expansionist China to meddle into a nation which shares an open border with India. However, for this India needs to understand that Nepal’s relation with India must be based on two principles- Equality and Sovereignty. Prachanda after assuming power in December 2022 too had emphasised that the new government will follow ‘balanced and trustworthy’ ties with India. With an approach based on equality, there lies an opportunity for India to get an ally back as New Delhi would never want the dragon’s shadow in the Himalayas.

Apoorva Shukla
Apoorva Shukla
The writer is a journalist who holds a degree from Indian Institute of Mass Communication. She is interested in Indian Politics and international affairs.