As nations, if India and Nepal were any closer, they would be one country. Their nationals can freely enter each other’s territories; the Nepalese can live and work in India – even join the Armed Forces, a privilege enjoyed by nobody else. With a deep civilisational bond rooted in thousands of years of shared history, there is little to tell them apart except for the constitutionally mandated boundaries. There is, of course, a huge disproportionality in size and population, but the inherent mutual respect has ensured that, despite political differences, relations have not soured beyond a point. Even the transformation of Nepal from a Hindu state to a secular one, following a bloody and long Maoist insurgency, did not prevent the strategic coherence between the two countries.
At the same time though, at a certain level, one political narrative resents India for what may be described as ‘passive aggression’ – that of a person sharing limited space on a bus seat with an overweight co-passenger. The fact that Nepal’s access to the rest of the world is through India also fans the paranoia of some, which was not relieved to any extent by the alleged ‘blockade’ of that country in 2015. It ensures this resentment can be kept brewing. However, it is also true that neither this event nor the Maoist insurgency led to overt interference in Nepal’s internal affairs by India. In fact, it was India’s behind the scenes efforts that led to resolution of these problems and the return of political stability. Some may even argue that India was overly hesitant in dealing with the matter to its own disadvantage.
This is reflected in Nepal’s political establishment tendency to play China off against its southern neighbour. This attitude is greatly influenced by the belief that India would be unable to resist Chinese aggression against Nepal, just as it could not in the case of Tibet and during the ’62 war. So, it is thought advisable to placate the dragon at the gates in a number of ways, which include provoking India with incidents such as the ongoing controversy over Lipulekh, Kalapani, etc.
Nepal cannot be blamed for attempting this balancing game, caught as it is between two of the world’s biggest countries. Unfortunately, the repercussions of this are being felt internally, as various exploitative forces are seeking to take advantage. The situation has become extremely fluid and it will require deft diplomacy between Kathmandu and New Delhi to ensure that things return to even keel – particularly as, in the backdrop of the corona pandemic, it cannot be said what happens next.