I s Kathmandu signalling to New Delhi that it may be ready to course correct vis-à-vis its decidedly pro-Beijing line under the leadership of former Prime Minister KP Oli?
The question assumes significance given that Nepali Congress president and Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba assured his party at its Central Working Committee (CWC) meeting last week that he would set up a task force to look into the issue of Chinese incursions into Nepalese territory, especially in the district of Humla.
Nepali Congress vice-president Bimalendra Nidhi, a former deputy Prime Minister and influential voice in the party, went on record to assert that just as Nepal is sensitive about its boundary issues with India, so it must be with China.
Further, he told the Kathmandu Post: “While the border issues with India have been incorporated into the government’s Common Minimum Programme (CMP), similar concerns relating to China have not.” This is the clearest indication yet that the government may be open to moving towards the traditional, post-monarchy position of nearly all administrations in Nepal (till Mr Oli took power) of maintaining equidistance from its giant neighbours to the North and South.
That the issue of Chinese incursions into Nepalese territory was first raised very forcefully by a Nepali Congress legislator from the Karnali Provincial Assembly is in itself significant.
But followed up by Mr Nidhi who escalated the issue by linking it with the absence of the boundary dispute with China from the ruling dispensation’s CMP and culminating with the assurance from the Prime Minister of setting up a high-powered task force, an element of choreography cannot be ruled out.
India, which is facing flak from strategic experts for the compromise it has reached with China over Galwan, Pangong, and Gogra (all three deals arguably either realign the LAC to Beijing’s advantage, result in loss of Indian access to key patrolling points, and/or create a buffer where there was none before the border stand-off), needs to be cognisant of this unexpected window of opportunity provided by Nepal doubling down on the issue of its territorial integrity.
Already, however, Beijing’s heft is being felt by the Nepalese establishment. Soon after the provincial lawmaker released a detailed statement on the incursions pinpointing not just specific areas of intrusion but even the boundary pillar numbers which had been removed or shifted, the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu had written to the Nepali Congress protesting the charges.
A subsequent factfinding report by the Nepalese home ministry, which was never made public, is thought to have substantiated some of the legislator’s claims. But the ministry of foreign affairs stepped in quickly, ruling out any boundary dispute with China. Mr Deuba’s move is, in this context, something for New Delhi to chew on.