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Oli’s visit and changing geostrategic equations in South Asia

K P Oli, the newly elected Prime Minister of Nepal, is on a two-day visit to India, his first foreign visit after assuming office in February. The usual diplomatic rhetoric is in place with both the sides expressing hopes that the visit will help strengthen bilateral ties.

Apr 6, 2018
By Lekshmi Parameswaran
     
K P Oli, the newly elected Prime Minister of Nepal, is on a two-day visit to India, his first foreign visit after assuming office in February. The usual diplomatic rhetoric is in place with both the sides expressing hopes that the visit will help strengthen bilateral ties. But beyond the visible optimism lies a sense of uncertainty that is not characteristic of what has come to define the historic ties of the neighbouring nations. There has never been a time like the present one when India’s position in the South Asian region has been on shakier ground. The geostrategic equations that were considered well-established are witnessing a paradigm shift that is threatening to redefine the very idea of South Asia.
 
The trust deficit that has crept in the India-Nepal relations ever since the infamous blockade of 2015 imposed by India after the promulgation of the new constitution has widened putting further strain on the ties. Perhaps this is also because it is Oli who benefited the maximum from India’s indecision by taking on the role of an ultra-nationalist leader and holding on to an anti-India sentiment to usher in a new era of domestic politics in Nepal. The tone and tenor of the Nepali establishment preceding his visit is also a reflection of the new hopes and aspirations of the country.
 
The role played by China in backing Oli’s rise to power is a factor that can no longer be overlooked when trying to gain the lost momentum in relations. The electoral alliance brokered by China between Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), or CPN(UML), and Prachanda’s CPN(MC) came as a body blow to India. And, so did Nepal’s decision to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) looking to develop alternate trading routes to Tibet. But, more than the increasing influence of China in Nepal, what India needs to be worried about is the geopolitical shift that is taking place in the South Asian region. The signs have been subtle so far; nevertheless, the realigning equations point to an idea of South Asia where the centrality of India is gradually being undermined.
 
Prashant Jha in an article in Hindustan Times posed the question, “Is the Nepal-India ‘special relationship’ undergoing a fundamental shift?”  He was referring to Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s visit to Nepal immediately after Oli assumed office. The move was unwonted and seemed to send out a political signal that pointed to the emergence of a new South Asian equations.  Nepal being the current chair of the South Asian Association for Regional Corporation (SAARC) praised Pakistan for playing a commendable role in the regional grouping after the country offered to host the next SAARC summit. It also needs to be noted here that Pakistan has been successful in garnering the support of Sri Lanka and Maldives in reviving SAARC. And with the South Asian nations warming to each other, the possibility of China becoming a part of SAARC is no longer as distant as it was before.
 
So, the question that India really needs to ask is - has its relations with the South Asian region has seen a fundamental shift? If the recent events are an indication of what the future holds, then the shifting tides don’t seem in India’s favour. India’s neighbours are asking for the ties to be defined on an equal footing. It is now up to India to understand the cues and reimagine its foreign policy vis-à-vis its neighbourhood. If the brewing discontent is left unaddressed, India will find itself alienated in a region where it was once seen as a hegemon.
 
(Lekshmi Parameswaran is a Researcher at SPS. She can be contacted at lekshmi.p@spsindia.in) 

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