Nepal's Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli visited India on Friday, April 6, for a three-day stay and perhaps not many visits by the Himalayan country's heads of state to India received the kind of attention it has got.
But why is Oli, perceived to be India-unfriendly, is getting so much focus? The answer in brief: Oli's Nepal is stronger and more assertive than ever and the onus lies on India to deal with it more cautiously and responsibly.
Nepal's politics has changed over last few years
In the last few years, Nepal's politics has undergone a serious churning. The country seems to have emerged from the post-monarchy transition days and the chaos that followed for almost a decade.
The prime minister's post had become more of a musical chair with its occupiers getting toppled often. Alongside the unstable political scenario, the economy also continued to struggle and in the foreign policy affairs, Nepal was seen either as a friend to India or China - depending on the colour of the political force that ruled it.
India's overdoing quake & alleged blockade
But in the last few years, the situation has undergone a significant change. The Nepali establishment and the people, in general, felt unhappy with India over the rescue operation show-off in the wake of the 2015 earthquake and an alleged blockade by New Delhi over the disappointing of Nepal's newly promulgated constitution. In Nepal's psyche, these indicated India's interference into their internal matters and in the age of the fast-spreading social media, the impact was more and long lasting.
China's game-changing OBOR
Next was China's game-changing OBOR (One Belt One Road) initiative or the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Nepal did not give it a second thought to join the initiative along with many other South Asian countries saying it was in its national interest.
For India, this independent thinking by Nepal in its foreign affairs was a surprise but as a sovereign country, Nepal was free to take the route is preferred. India's shadow in its neighbourhood was cut short further by the OBOR.
Death of Sushil Koirala -- India's friend
The third was the death of Sushil Koirala in February 2016. The man was a moderate figure in Nepali politics and also a leader of the India friendly Nepali Congress. His death not only led to a crisis in the party's leadership and succession but also for India in finding a trusted ally in the neighbouring country. Koirala had also taken a proactive role in acting as a bridge between India and Pakistan when the two adamant rivals refused to see eye to eye at a Saarc summit in Kathmandu in November 2014.
An absence of such a balancing figure means polarisation in Nepal's politics will go unchecked and that is not a good news for India which always hoped to win the loyalty of the Nepali people as a whole.
Domination of Left Alliance in Nepal politics
The final factor is the overwhelming victory of the Left Alliance in Nepal's elections late last year. It means Oli, unlike in the past, has a solid mandate behind him and that makes him choose the nationalist path all the more because he is bound to honour the faith of his constituencies. It's not without a reason that Oli said he would not sign any agreement during his visit to India if it went against Nepal's interest. It is interesting to see a Nepali head of government saying so before visiting a country with which Nepal has century-old connections. But this is the power of democracy and Nepal has started getting adjusted to it. It's the Left/Communist parties that are dominating Nepal just like the BJP in India and one can understand how a monolithic political rule serves a country's national interests.
It would be apt to mention here that Oli met Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi in Kathmandu as the first foreign dignitary after becoming the prime minister for the second time. For Indian observers, this was an inappropriate action by Oli since India-Pakistan ties are not in great health now. But from the perspectives of Oli and Nepal, it was a masterstroke to make it evident that Nepal is not always ready to count India when it is deciding on its foreign policy moves. Also, there are efforts from within Nepal's civil society to develop relations with Bangladesh for economic convenience instead of solely depending on India.
These quests for diversification are something which Nepal's political elite and civil society are trying of late to assert their country's identity beyond the shadows of its big neighbours. This is a new reality that India, which is more emotionally connected with Nepal than China, has to live with.
Time for India to change Nepal policy
It is high time that India changes its strategy towards the smaller neighbours if it wants to continue with the position of eminence in South Asia. With China's rapid rise in the vicinity, India has to accept the fact that it no longer enjoys the authority it did in South Asia and neither does it have the economic and military clout to compete with or resist Chinese ambitions.
India has to fall back on what it does best: employing the ideas of dialogue and cooperation with all neighbours - big or small - alike. Prime Minister Oli can't afford to dump India straightway but can assert his country's national ambitions time and again, thanks to his own strength at home, to India's dismay. But New Delhi must accommodate the fact that democracies are like unleashed energies and can't be expected to act as per one's wishes. Nepal has to be given the space it deserves today before India tries to deal with a new policy perspective.