After taking charge as Nepal's Prime Minister for the second time on February 15, K.P. Sharma Oli's first overseas state visit to India from April 6 to 8 has triggered a spate of media commentaries. Most have focused on Nepal's dependence on India, hoping to reduce Oli's tilt to China.
Even a section of Indian nationalistic intellectuals opined that PM Oli's visit gives India a chance to wean its neighbor away from China. It's a fact that Oli's visit took place at a time when there is a growing realization of the need, from both sides, to redefine the bilateral ties.
But it is wishful thinking that Oli, who feels much closer to China than India from a practical perspective, will drop its"anti-India"positioning, despite Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's olive branch to Nepal with trade promises.
It is worth noting that during his election campaign, Oli had publicly criticized New Delhi for interfering in Nepal's internal matters and accused it of toppling his government last year with the help of the Nepali Congress and the Madhesis.
Modi's invitation to Oli is actually an attempt to reset relations with Nepal where China has expanding its footprints, particularly in relation to infrastructure projects and the connectivity sector in recent years. India is increasingly concerned about Nepal's official advancements towards China's Belt and Road Initiative, and its growing influence in the Himalayan nation, a region in which India has traditionally been the dominant actor.
But there is now little doubt that India has lost its strategic position to China in Nepal as China's economic aid ranging from energy and trade to tourism is helping Nepal to revive its ailing economy.
Arriving in New Delhi onApril6, Oli acknowledged the deep distrust that still marks his relationship with the Indian leadership. In an interview to The Hindu, Oli rhetorically said, "We are neighbors, if your child comes to my house and repeatedly rearranges my house, breaks something, how will you feel?"
Surely, Oli's "child metaphor" indicated Indian interference in Nepal's politics, presumably referring to the 2015 infamous India-backed economic blockade that put a spike in India's relationship with Nepal over the past couple of years. Clearly, the blockade which brought great hardship to the common Nepalese people, whipped up anti-India nationalism, sparking public pressure for closer relations with China, breaking India's bastion despite the fact the latter is the smaller country's predominant business partner.
It's a fact that the majority of Nepalese still welcome China's non-interference in the internal affairs of Nepal. In the hour of the devastating earthquake in 2016 Nepal found in China "a friend in need." The 2016 Nepal-China trade and transit agreement is an apt example of friendly cooperation between the two countries. China is currently Nepal's top foreign direct investment partner.
During his meeting with the Indian political class including PM Narendra Modi, Indian President Ram Nath Kovind, Indian Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj, Oli tried to balance ties with both Nepal's neighbors, India and China. He made it clear that Nepal wants to update its cordial and friendly relations with India and China "in keeping with the times" to engage in the vibrant economic drive of the neighborhood with a view to benefitting from it.
With ties on track, some agreements were signed in key areas – agriculture, rail linkages including constructing a new electrified rail line with India's financial support connecting Raxaul in India with Kathmandu. From the Indian perspective, underlining the importance of the proposed rail and river link, India's ambassador to Nepal, Manjeev Singh Puri said, "This will link Nepal to the sea through the riverine network."
But the real motive behind the proposed rail and river link is to fend off China's influence in the Himalayan nation as the two countries have expedited the Nepal-China cross border rail line between Kathmandu and Lhasa in Tibet under the Belt and Road Initiative, which has worried India greatly. But India is misjudging the rail link between China and Nepal as it can also boost India's cross-border trade with China and Bangladesh via Nepal.
However, for the first time in many years, a Nepali prime minister's visit signaled that India's script and narrative can be "defied." Nepal has the right to push forward its own national interest and well-being of the Nepalese people. In the presence of Modi, Oli firmly said, "Neighborhood realities make peaceful coexistence, based on the principles of equality, justice, mutual respect and benefits are a necessity for a shared destiny."
In this light, it is important for India to change her big brother attitude to its neighborhood policy. China is ahead of India in comprehensive economic partnerships with neighboring countries that surround India.
Surely, Oli's visit is a wake-up call for India to rethink its attitude toward Nepal- China relations. It can be hoped that Indian policy makers, think tanks and the country's media should think that Nepal is not India's individual domain and must respect Nepal's sovereignty. If India forces the Himalayan nation to accept its ideas and tries to prevent it from getting closer to China, it will be a self-defeating one.