The South Asia Channel
India Pushes Nepal into China’s Arms
India's blockade may force Nepal's hand but it will also remind Nepal that India is not their only neighbor.
Nepal’s announcement of its new constitution in late September invited domestic and international opposition. The constitution’s newly proposed federal divisions have proven to be extremely controversial. In Nepal’s southern district, Madhesis and Tharu, ethnic groups representing over 40 percent of the population in Nepal’s Terai region, have been protesting against what they see as their clear disenfranchisement under the new arrangement. They argue that the newly proposed provincial borders could lead to their political marginalization. The new provincial boundaries combine many sections of the Terai with hill districts, which in some cases could turn Madhesi and Tharu into provincial minorities.
India, in turn, has voiced its objections to the new constitution arguing that the new constitution has failed to “support a federal, democratic, republican, and inclusive” Nepal. By failing to consult with major political groups, like the Madhesi, India sees the constitution as a top-down, undemocratic initiative that will fail to stabilize Nepal and ensure the rights of all its citizens. However, India’s motives are not as selfless as they may appear. Madhesis are also an important voting bloc in the Indian state of Bihar. Indeed, as Bihar goes to the polls, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is worried about its chances of maintaining their control of the state. Any violence in Nepal and concern over India’s position on Madhesi rights in Nepal could adversely affect Indian domestic politics and the prospects of a BJP victory in the state. The result: an unofficial blockade stopping the transport and Indian goods and fuel to the country.
India’s unofficial blockade of Kathmandu seems like an attempt to force the Nepali government to concede to New Delhi’s demands as well as demonstrate India’s ability to influence Nepal’s domestic politics. This aggressive stance against a small South Asian state may indeed force Nepal’s hand; however, it will also push Nepal closer to China as well as demonstrate to other neighboring states the dangers of India’s regional clout. Ironically, India’s show of strength may prove to actually weaken its future position in the subcontinent.
Several days after Nepal adopted its new constitution, border trade between India and Nepal slowed to a halt. Indian officials blamed the Madhesi protests and their roadblocks for the interruption in cross-border trade. This claim, however, fails to account for reports that India’s Border Security Force received orders to search every single truck making its way to Nepal. This has resulted in hundreds of vehicles piling up at the border, waiting for tedious and inefficient searches. More damning than the flow of consumer goods and foodstuffs is India’s refusal to release Nepali oil tankers, resulting in an extremely serious fuel shortage. The Nepali government has restricted the use of fuel for private vehicles, citing the need to save fuel for emergency vehicles.
While the blockade remains unofficial, the refusal to refuel tankers seems a clear sign of India’s attempt at economic blackmail to force domestic political change in a small, neighboring state.
India’s actions will definitely hurt the already fragile Nepali economy, and may succeed in forcing Kathmandu to make changes to the new constitution. Indeed, the Madhesi protests against the new administrative boundaries are a sign that the new constitution could benefit from substantial popular consultations. India’s chosen strategy, however, is likely to hurt India’s long-term goals, as it forces Kathmandu to reassess its reliance on India. This incident is likely to remind Nepali leaders that India is not their only neighbor.
Nepal’s medium to long-term reaction to India’s barely veiled attempt to force constitutional reform will, almost invariably be a marked shift towards Beijing and away from New Delhi. Nepal, in any case, has been trying for quite some time to expand economic ties with China. Furthermore, India and China appeared to be competing for the title of most helpful neighbor when they were offering aid to Nepal after the devastating earthquake in April of this year. For its part, Nepal refused aid from Taiwan and is becoming increasingly hostile to the 20,000 Tibetan refugees in the country, likely in response to Chinese pressure.
Broadly speaking, as a small country lodged between two major powers, Nepal’s sovereignty and autonomous decision-making ability relies on managing relations with those big neighbors. Unlike other small states in similar geopolitical situations, Nepal has not been able to leverage its geostrategic value or natural resources to develop strong relations with extra-regional powers. At the same time, the mountains between Nepal and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region have complicated efforts to develop links with China. India, on the other hand, has enjoyed privileged access to Nepal. However, as China’s western regions rapidly develop, there are increasing incentives and possibilities for promoting China-Nepal trade and fostering future political ties.
India’s unofficial blockade of Nepal signals the country’s willingness to leverage its economic relationship to pursue domestic political change in its small neighbors. Nepal is likely to see this as a major threat to its ability to make policy choices with constant Indian approval. China, on the other hand, enjoys a reputation for non-interference, despite the pressures that it has exerted on Nepal on the Tibetan refugee question. In fact, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman noted that China was pleased to see that Nepal’s Constituent Assembly has endorsed the new constitution.
The damage to India-Nepal relations should be a major concern for India, since it has almost certainly opened up the space for China to move in. India has practically invited Beijing directly into New Delhi’s traditional sphere of influence.
Beyond Nepal, India’s actions may endanger its standing in South Asia, as many of its other, smaller neighbors, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan look on. Pakistan will use this incident as proof of Indian aggression, a rhetorical strategy Islamabad has long used to justify its own security policies and defense purchases. Bangladeshi politicians, especially in the Bangladesh Nation Party, continue to be suspicious of India and have urged the development of closer relations with China and Pakistan to ensure India’s influence is minimized. Recent decisions are likely to give fodder to such arguments. Sri Lanka and Bhutan are likely to make similar calculations.
It is difficult to know what calculations India’s policymakers had in mind when they issued directives to slow border trade and stop fuel tankers going into Nepal. At best, India can expect a short-term victory, but the long-term consequences are sure to upset India’s relations not only with Nepal, but with other bordering states as well.
Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty Images
Sumit Ganguly is a Foreign Policy columnist. He is also a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.