AuthorKantha, Pramod K.


In June 2020, Nepal's Parliament upped its ante against India by revising its map to assert its claim to Mahakali, Lipulekh, and Limpiyadhura areas in Nepal's westernmost region bordering India. The dispute had begun in November 2019 when India included the same territories in its revised map. India's revised map triggered prolonged street protests and demands in Nepal to assert Nepal's ownership of the areas. After India decided in early May 2020 to open a new access road for Indian pilgrims to Man Sarovar in Tibet via Lipulekh Pass, the area claimed by Nepal, Nepal responded by revising its own map reasserting its claims to the disputed regions. This new territorial dispute between the two countries added a new strain to an already tense Nepal-India relationship that followed the adoption of Nepal's new constitution in September 2015. The leaders of Nepal's major political parties used their two-thirds majority in the Constituent Assembly (CA) to pass the constitution, ignoring the persistent Indian pleas to reach a compromise with the protesting Madhesis before passing the constitution. India responded by refusing to recognize the new constitution and closing most of the fifteen transit points into landlocked Nepal from its borders. The Nepali government, instead of relenting to the Indian pressure, took a defiant stand, pleaded for help from China, and waited for India to blink. India ended the blockade in February 2016 under growing domestic and international unease at Nepali people's suffering. Nepal managed to withstand the Indian pressure without making any major concessions.

The aftermath of Nepal's standoff with India has raised further challenges to Nepal-India relations, especially to India's diplomatic and security objectives in Nepal. Intense rivalries for power among Nepal's political parties, the emergence of a powerful communist bloc, and an unprecedented push by China to bolster its political and economic influence in Nepal are key factors underlying these challenges. During the 2017 local, provincial, and national elections, Nepal's communist parties made the showdown with India the centerpiece of their campaigns; their nationalist appeal contributed to their securing a commanding win at the polls. In February 2018, K. P. Oli, the leader of the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML), with the support of the Communist Party of Nepal-Center (Prachanda), became the first elected prime minister under the 2015 constitution. In May 2018 the two communist parties merged to form Nepal's strongest-ever new party--the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN). China was widely known to have played a key role in the merger of Nepal's two communist parties. The rise of a unified communist party in Nepal with an overwhelming majority in Parliament, along with China's open embrace of this party and Nepal's membership in 2017 of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), were obvious setbacks to India's longstanding foreign-policy objective of keeping Nepal as a bulwark of India's Himalayan frontiers and countering the growth of pro-Chinese political forces in Nepal. For several years in a row, China has been the largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) for Nepal. China has also been making inroads into Nepal's domestic politics by cultivating the support of party leaders, especially those of the communist parties. In September 2019, the CPN organized for its members a two-day training program in Kathmandu on Chinese president Xi Jinping's thought. The training was conducted by a fifty-member Chinese Communist Party delegation. This was the first-ever training, and it caused considerable consternation, especially among Nepal's non-communist leaders. In October 2019, Xi visited Kathmandu, the first visit in over twenty years by a Chinese head of state. He pledged to turn Nepal from a land-locked to a land-linked country through a Trans-Himalayan Multi-dimensional Connectivity Network. In May 2020, Nepali media were abuzz with reports that Xi had telephoned Nepal's president, Bidya Devi Bhandari, and exhorted Nepal's feuding communist party leaders to remain united. The Chinese role was seen as critical in a temporary truce that followed among the rival leaders. Commenting on the closeness of Nepali communists to China, India's leading expert on Nepal, S. D. Muni, wrote: "The establishment of this ideological nexus between the two ruling parties must be an upgradation of China's political, economic, and cultural penetration in Nepal under the BRI umbrella." (1)

In July 2020 the CPN was again embroiled in intense factional infighting between Prime Minister Oli and other leading figures in the party. As she had done in May, the Chinese ambassador to Nepal, Hou Yanqui, again involved herself in corralling the party leaders to compromise and retain their leadership of the government.

What impact are these developments likely to have on Nepal's non-aligned foreign policy and its long-running neutrality in disputes involving India and China? How is Nepal's young and struggling democracy affected by the rise of a strong communist party in Nepal and its ever-closer relations with the Chinese Communist Party? How is India likely to secure its interests in Nepal's new political milieu? What is the likely impact on Nepal of the global strategic realignment that is moving India closer to the United States amid growing border clashes between India and China? This article searches for answers to these questions by process tracing critical events and intersections leading to Nepal's recent political transition from monarchy to republic. The central thesis of this article is that an incessant and unrestrained jockeying for power among Nepal's deeply divided and factionalized political party leaders, combined with their ubiquitous tendency to marshal external support in their favor, have unleashed room for an unprecedented level of foreign meddling, which threatens Nepal's democracy, its political stability, and its ability to maintain an independent foreign policy.

The article is divided into five sections. The first section is a brief examination of major junctures in India-Nepal relations between the 1950s and the 1990s. The second section deals with the period between 1991 and 2006 when India became again involved in managing Nepal's deepening political crisis created by the Maoist insurgency and standoff between Nepal's King Gyanendra and Nepal's political parties. The third section examines another critical period between 2006 and 2012 when Nepal grappled with major issues facing the peace negotiations with the Maoists and restructuring of the Nepali state with CA elections to pass a new constitution. The fourth section deals with developments since the second CA elections in November 2013. This period included many milestones, including the adoption of the new constitution, Madhesi rejection and continued protests, crisis in relations with India, China's push for greater influence, and the 2017 national elections under the new constitution. The fifth section presents analytical conclusions of the trends observed and their likely future directions.


    Two major developments in the 1950s became the cornerstones of the Nepal-India relationship: the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship and the Delhi Accord. The first of these formalized, among other things, an open border between the two countries and granted their citizens many mutual privileges, including the right to reside in and own property and operate businesses in each other's territories. For India, the treaty was another strand of its "Himalayan Frontier Policy" which viewed the borders of the neighboring Himalayan Kingdoms with China as the outer flanks of India's defense, a legacy of the British rule. India had concluded similar treaties with the other two Himalayan Kingdoms--Bhutan and Sikkim. (2) The 1950 treaty continues to define many aspects of India-Nepal relations even though some of its provisions have made them "uneasy neighbors." (3)

    The Delhi Accord of February 1951 emerged as a much more consequential factor than the 1950 treaty in redefining India-Nepal relations in the context of the recalibration of Nepal's internal politics. Mediated by Indian prime minister J. L. Nehru, the Delhi Accord envisaged a transition of Nepal's autocratic regime to a parliamentary system. Under the accord, King Tribhuvana accepted his future role as a titular head. India saw this accord as an opportunity to promote democracy in Nepal; India also expected popular rule in Nepal to work as an antidote to the spread of communism, especially the Chinese influence. (4) As India's role in Nepali politics surged between 1950 and 1955, the period came to be known as the era of special relations. Ramakant, a noted Indian scholar, saw the 1951 revolution in Nepal as India's "diplomatic midwifery"; following the Delhi agreement, he found the Indian government "to have acquired the habit of considering Nepal almost an extension of India, as a natural part of the Indian sphere of influence." (5)

    The Delhi Accord had a short life. It began unraveling with the succession of King Mahendra in 1955. The new king saw India's support for democracy in Nepal, especially its patronage of the Nepali Congress, the country's leading political party and also the only one represented in the negotiations of the Delhi Accord, as proxies for Indian hegemony in Nepal. Moreover, India's preference for democracy in Nepal undercut the king's pursuit for absolute power and his desire to highlight Nepal's image internationally as an independent and sovereign nation. Leo Rose and Roger Dial view Mahendra's policies as "a handy case study" that showed how "lesser states confront and confound the interventionist policies of the major...

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