26/11/2015 8:25 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

If India Isn't Careful, China Could Capitalise On Nepal Impasse

Nepalese policemen face protestors belonging to ethnic and religious groups dissatisfied with Nepal's new constitution adopted on Sunday, in Birgunj, a town bordering India in Nepal, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. Nepal’s top political parties on Thursday reached out to protesters angry about the country’s new constitution, after violence in the region bordering India halted more than 1,000 oil tankers and trucks with essential supplies from entering Nepal. (AP Photo/Ram Sarraf)

There is a growing resentment against India among the ordinary people of Nepal. This resentment stems from the non-availability of essential supplies, especially petroleum products, as a result of the blockade by Madhesis at the India- Nepal border, believed by the Nepalese government to have been engineered by India. Nepal, a landlocked country, is heavily dependent on India not only for its fuel requirements, but also for other essential supplies.

The Madhesis, an ethnic community based in Nepal's Terai region have close linguistic and cultural ties with Indians. The community is agitating against the proportional representation principle of the recently promulgated Constitution, as areas now have been divided based on geography, instead of population. Under the proportionate representation, only eight districts in the Terai region have been given the status of a province; the remaining 14 districts are to be joined with the hill districts.

This will adversely affect the Madhesis, as their representation in Parliament will be severely curtailed, though their population is far greater than those living in the hills. In all democratic countries, proportional representation is arrived by taking the population of a region into account and not geographical areas. It is for this reason the Madhesis feel that the new proportionate principle is a deliberate attempt to keep them from mainstream politics and, instead, vest the actual power with the "hill people"

"If India does not reach out to the new government, there is a likelihood that China will take advantage of the situation and try to isolate India."

The new Constitution has a provision for a 165-member Parliament, but the constituencies have been demarcated in such a way that the people of the hill and mountain region will get 100 seats, despite the fact that their share of Nepal's total population is less than 50%. On the other hand, the Terai region, constituting over half of the country's population, has been allocated only 65 seats.

In fact, during the final stages of drafting of Nepal's Constitution, India had invited prominent members of all major parties like the Nepali Congress, CPN -UML, UCPN- Maoist to Delhi for discussion. India got an assurance from these leaders that they would keep the Madhesis' concerns in the draft Constitution. But, unfortunately, that is not what happened.

Now, instead of engaging with India on the matter, the Nepal government led by K P Sharma Oli, has deftly played the China card. By signing a deal with China for oil and ending India's four-decade monopoly, Nepal has scored a strategic win. China has agreed to supply 1.3 million litres of fuel to Nepal to ease the crisis. While China, unlike India, has no cultural or religious affinity with the Nepalese people, India has lost much of the goodwill it had built over the years with Nepal. It should be noted that in April 2015, when Nepal was devastated by the earthquake, it was the Indian Prime Minister who first came to its rescue, galvanising the entire government machinery to help Nepal cope with the tragedy.

However, this history is not assuaging Nepal's anger against India, which is two-fold:

First, India's concern for Madhesis is viewed by the Nepalese government as a gross interference in their internal affairs. They feel that it is their responsibility to address the grievances of the Madhesis and Tharus and India should not meddle in the matter.

Secondly, Nepal has not taken kindly to India's raising the issue of war crimes, committed during the decade-long conflict in Nepal at the United Nations.

On both counts, India's approach was seen as an attempt to bully its neighbour. China on the other hand not only praised Nepal for promulgating the Constitution, but also came to its rescue to tide over the fuel crisis thus generating a lot of goodwill among ordinary people.

In recent years, the increasing dominance of Maoism in Nepal's domestic politics has seen Nepal come to closer to China. It is for this reason India needs to tread carefully in managing its relations with Nepal. If India does not reach out to the new government, there is a likelihood that China will take advantage of the situation and try to isolate India. On the other hand, Nepal should show maturity, as looking towards China for assistance is not a workable situation in the long run. Moreover, no purpose would be served by antagonising India.

Both India and Nepal should immediately engage with one another to end the impasse. Moreover, India should realise that it no longer has the same leverage as it had with the previous government. It should avoid any stand-off with Nepal and, instead, deftly manage its relations with its neighbour before it goes too far into China's orbit.

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