(This was originally posted in The Print by Nayanima Basu)
New Delhi: China’s influence in Nepal has grown in the last few years but this should not “worry” India as it has strong historical, cultural, and economic ties with Kathmandu, former Nepalese Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai told ThePrint in an interview.
Even as he denied any cause for worry, Bhattarai called for high-level political dialogue between Kathmandu and Delhi, and greater interaction at the people-to-people and media levels. “I will like to dispel this mis-perception that Chinese influence has grown out of proportion in Nepal. Of course, Chinese influence has grown, it is a rising power, it is a neighbouring country but not to the extent that it should worry India,” he said.
Nepal enjoys historical, geographical, economic, cultural as well as social ties with India, and thus Beijing can “never be a replacement” for Delhi, said Bhattarai, who was Nepal’s PM from 2011 to 2013.
“With India we have historical relations, closest economic interactions, cultural and social affinity, geographically also our people’s movement is towards India than China. So, in that sense, China can never be a replacement of India for Nepal. This needs to be correctly perceived in Delhi. Nepal will always have good relations with India,” he stressed.
“Of course, being a sovereign country we are entitled to have relations with China and other countries but not at the cost of basic relations and core values of our historical bond between India and Nepal,” he added.
Bhattarai, who is now the chairman of the federal council of Nepal’s Janata Samajbadi Party, also noted that the Himalayan country has been “undergoing a structural crisis for some time”, and political stability remains evasive despite the Constitution coming into force in 2015.
He spoke about the numerous internal challenges Kathmandu faces, which cannot be resolved by a single party.
India-Nepal border issue needs to be resolved soon
Bhattarai, who has studied at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, believes India and Nepal should resolve the remaining boundary dispute with high-level political dialogue.
“The boundary issue should have been solved through a high-level political mechanism, which is already existing. They didn’t do it on time… The dispute has been hanging for last 200 years. So that should have been resolved through talks and I think there is no other solution than having a high-level political talks and resolving it,” he said.
Bhattarai said the boundary issue was left behind since the British days when both sides signed the Sugauli Treaty of 1815-16, which made the Kali River the boundary between British India and Nepal.
“But the origin of Kali River was not mentioned and no maps were exchanged,” he said, adding that it should be now resolved via dialogue.
In May 2020, Nepal issued a new political map claiming the disputed regions of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura as part of its territory. India has rejected the map.
On taking Indo-Nepal ties to higher level
Bhattarai noted that the strategic interests of India, China and the US are changing rapidly and impacting the geopolitics of the region.
“Geopolitical situation is fast changing in the Himalayan region. The strategic interest of the US, China, India and other countries are colliding in the region. Keeping this in mind we should revisit and, if needed, revise our traditional relations,” he said.
He also said since India and Nepal have the closest relations, both sides “should sit down and talk about it”.
“My understanding is if India’s core interest is security interest then they should define it properly and convince Nepal to take care of it. In Nepal’s case, our core issue is economic development. We are still one of the poorest countries in the world… So we need trade, investment and tourism flow from India for Nepal’s economic redevelopment,” he said.
“This way our development aspirations and security concern of India could be discussed and our relations can reach higher levels,” he added.
Nepal’s crises can’t be handled by single party
According to Bhattarai, Kathmandu faces multiple internal and external challenges, which cannot be resolved by any single party.
Issues such as peace process with the Maoists, truth and reconciliation commission, which relates to addressing the crime and atrocities that was committed during the civil war in Nepal, are still pending, he said.
Some of the Nepalese people, especially the Madhesis, Janajatis and other indigenous population of the country, are “not happy” with the Constitution that was promulgated in 2015, he said.
Apart from that, the economic crisis is deepening and corruption is rampant even as ties with India have “gone down the hill over the years”, he noted.
“So these major issues cannot be handled by any single party. Major parties should join hands and give an alternative government and solve the issues…” he said.
“The split of the Communist Party has not yet been formalised. Until and unless that happens we cannot talk to any faction, that doesn’t make any sense. If the party formally splits and then the question of forming the next government comes and then we will analyse the situation and go by it,” he added.
He said the internal political crisis in Nepal has deepened so much since the Nepal Communist Party split into two factions that even India, the closest neighbour, “seems to be confused” on how to deal with the country on bilateral issues.
“Indian establishment and overall political community seems to be confused about Nepal. I tried to clear doubts on some of the issues informally. But I believe there should be a high-level political dialogue between Nepal and India and there should be more interaction at the people-to-people level and media,” he said.
“I find there is a lot of gap in the understanding of each other between both countries. This is serious and should not happen,” said Bhattarai.
In December 2020, as Nepalese Prime Minister K.P. Oli announced dissolution of the Parliament, the ruling NCP split informally into two factions — one led by him and the other by Madhav Nepal and Pushp Kamal Dahal, both former PMs of Nepal.
“The NCP has fallen under its own weight. It is virtually split into two. It will be formalised soon. This way we will have four major parties in the Parliament. None of them command a majority. So, either we will have to go for coalition government or a national consensus government before the next elections…” said Bhattarai.
“We are trying to provide a democratic alternative to the Congress and the Communist Party. I think this party could play a big role in the days to come both within the country and for improving Indo-Nepal relations,” he added.