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INDIA-CHINA STANDOFF: BREWING TURMOIL IN MADHESH, LEADERS TILT TO CHINA

Dr Geeta Kochhar  Writes : 

With tensions rising on the India-China border, Nepal is at a crossroad. Being a nation between the two power giants, it is facing a Catch-22 situation, similar to the Doklam crisis in 2017. At that time, Nepal government could sustain a neutral posture and adopt a policy of wait and watch. The issue subsided within 73 days, followed by Modi-Xi meetings, and there was signs of relief in Nepal. However, since then there has been swift action in Nepal to prepare for future possibilities. The heart of anxiety was visible when Nepali PM Oli raised the issue of Kalapani, which is the tri-junction area of India-China-Nepal. More significant was the full support of Madhesi party (Janta Samajwadi Party, JSP) to Kalapani issue in the parliament. Interestingly, less highlighted is the fact that the Kalapani area is deeply linked to Terai region and the decisions over it directly affect the region.

The issue then is why did Madhesi leaders not show any dissent over the Kalapani issue considering the deterioration of ties between India and Nepal directly affect the lives of Madhesi people? What are the future plans of JSP for Madhesh and for its people? Are JSP leaders getting increasingly inclined towards China, after some of its leaders have shown multi-faceted loyalties towards Pakistan, Western powers, as well as towards India? What happens to the core issues of Madhesh, in case its leaders, who have been earlier criticized of deceiving its own people, seek only self-interest? These are areas of concern which India needs to rethink before having policy clarity towards Nepal.

India-China Cooperation or Conflict and the Role of JSP

In June 2017, Indian and Chinese militaries were engulfed in a serious military standoff at the border, which lasted for more than two months and was finally diffused due to highest political intervention. The standoff involved a small, but important, country between India and China, i.e. Bhutan. There were many international voices talking about the inevitability of confrontation between India and China, as the two powers rise to claim regional and global positions. Yet, the regional powers were looking at small powers that may get affected due to any confrontation between the two big powers.

Nepal, another small state between the two powers – India and China – was also troubled with the future outcome, especially as the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) was in the majority. It is needless to decipher the reasons behind PM Oli bringing up the Kalapani issue and raising to pass a new map. However, it is pertinent to comprehend the role of JSP in this political drama in Nepal. The only voice that openly supported and demanded a democratic discussion over the Kalapani issue was that of Ms. Sarita Giri, now a former JSP member and ex-Member of Constituent Assembly.

Much of the voices point out JSP had no choice but to support NCP and PM Oli for few reasons,

  • the issue had hit the nationalist nerves in Nepal, and the JSP Madhesi leaders wanted to prove themselves to be more nationalist than the Pahadi leaders;
  • as NCP enjoyed majority in the parliament, JSP leaders were aware that in any case the new map incorporating Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura would be passed by the parliament, as Madhesi leaders only had 34 out of the 275 seats;
  • the JSP also having Dr. Baburam Bhattarai as one of the senior leaders wanted to woo Pahadi people in preparation of next elections; and
  • Upendra Yadav, the Co-Chairperson of JSP, was having a silent posture.

Yet, the question remains as to why the dissent was not raised and recorded, considering that any deterioration of India-Nepal ties greatly affect Madhesh and its people. There are few things that need serious consideration. First, JSP was formed as a new merger (after unification of Rastriya Janata Party Nepal (RJP) and Socialist Party Nepal) in haste and the internal tussle for hierarchy was ongoing amidst the Kalapani map issue. Dr. Bhattarai was willing to be the Chairman of the Party, but as Mahanta Thakur refused to give him the post, he had to be contented with ‘Senior Leader’ position.[i] Even in the Samajwadi Party after the merger with Naya Shakti Party, Dr. Bhattarai was not given lead position as Upendra Yadav retained entire control. The JSP leaders were busy sharing power and position during the map issue, along with preparing for future elections.

Second, in 2018, Upendra Yadav was working in coordination with NCP as Deputy Prime Minister. During the tenure, he had started to show greater inclination towards the northern neighbor, so as to encash his personal objectives. This was only thwarted when PM Oli hooked up with Rashtriya Janta Party leader Rajendra Mahato for the by-election of National Assembly of the Upper House of the Parliament in the end of 2019.[ii] Upendra Yadav’s proximity to China is also visible in times when issues of China capturing Nepali land are being raised in Nepal and he is silent. Noteworthy is that SP is the only Madhesh-based party that invites Chinese delegates for its Annual summits. Not so surprisingly, in the recent past, SP’s Central member Ms. Rekha Yadav had joined a program organized by Pakistani Embassy in Nepal on November 2019 to mark the Black Day in protest of abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir.[iii] SP Chairman Upendra Yadav downplayed reports citing it as a “mistake”. Hence, there seems clear tilted posture of Upendra Yadav in support of China-Pakistan partnership against India.

Third, there was complete silence of JSP leaders over PM Oli’s remarks on Ram Janambhoomi; while India has been mooting the idea of Ramayana circuit to make connections with Janaki Mandir in Janakpur. India-Nepal ties are more closely linked due to religious and cultural connections. When the communist leader PM Oli attacked this very foundation of connections, it was expected that at least Madhesh based parties will show their unhappiness, as the Roti-beti ties have made cross-boundary marriages in Terai region a common phenomenon. However, cold reaction from Madheshi leaders point towards rent-seeking tendency of leaders, who want to jump over every opportunity to seek benefit in case of dispute and difference between India and Nepal or India and China.

Fourth, in May 2015, when India and China reached an understanding of 2+1 cooperation in Nepal by opening an international trade route through Lipulekh Bhanjyang in Dharchula district, apart from the NCP leaders, it was the Madhesi leaders who were deciphering the profit and loss balance sheet. JSP leaders are supporting NCP to reach an agreement with China to get control of entire Kalapani area, and then engage in internal tussle to reap benefits from that land, as the area will come under Terai region. The monetary benefits in the name of development of the region, the real estate cost and kick back, as well the trading route revenues can easily be made by JSP, even though the state of Terai region’s development is abysmal despite huge funds available with the Provincial government. Hence, the objective is rent-seeking and self-interest; rather than social and economic development of the region. In this objective, the closeness of Upendra Yadav with the Chinese can come at an advantage; while Dr. Bhattarai can facilitate closer cooperation.

JSP and Implication on India-Nepal Ties Vis-a-Vis China

The relationship between India and Nepal are always influenced due to the geographic and cultural proximity of Madhesh with India. But it is engulfed with strong anti-India narrative in Nepal and blame for supporting Madhesh to topple governments in Nepal. The narrative has created a scenario where each leader in Nepal uses anti-India sentiments to whip the nationalist sentiments of the masses and gain higher leadership positions. The loyalty of India is put to test each time there is internal turmoil in order to gain greater advantages and have a hard bargaining position with the Indian establishment.

As the current chaos in NCP and Oli’s actions in Madhesh created a different ball-game, JSP leaders were forced to take decisive actions for future security of their power and positions. The unity of JSP, even if out of compulsion, runs on unstable factors, though it might work to the advantage of India for not having to deal with multiple factions. Yet, the current situation is fragile and holds uncertainty as JSP is planning to restructure its Party and prepare for next elections.

Apart from a broader understanding between RJP and JSP over seats in future elections, there are issues of deciding central committee members and local party workers amalgamation, which might result in suspension of membership and expulsion of few from top. If the Central members are either expelled or their membership terminated, a furore is bound to hit back. The members may create another revolt in Madhesh, which is not conducive for India-Nepal ties. Any internal chaos will eventually have spill over affect and the next elections in Nepal are rift with all kinds of unstable factors. In case India wants to maintain harmony with Nepal, it needs to work to ensure stability in Madhesh and unity of JSP. It also needs a deep strategy to wean them away from China. Divisions and emergence of sub-groupings in Madhesh are bound to create instability; while the masses are already unhappy with the governance of NCP and effects of Covid-19.

The growing Chinese influence in Nepal also needs to be viewed from multiple angles, especially when India-China ties are for a long haul. Initial objectives of China in Nepal were more rooted in Tibet’s security and Tibetans in Nepal. However, with Xi Jinping’s ideological spread, it is not just NCP that is getting close to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but Madhesi leaders are also showing tilt for the economic opportunities. China is promoting Lumbini as a Buddhist hub in Nepal, but business linkages have spread wings in Madhesh too, with some hotels managed by the Chinese businessmen. It is just a matter of time that the presence of China will be more in Madhesh too; while it has already controlled many areas of Thamel, most popular tourist destination in Kathmandu. China is also providing gracious scholarships to Nepalis, which will in future be based on loyalty towards China. Many Madhesis are increasingly trained in China; while India trained and educated Nepali have only turned anti-India over the years, as no loyalty was ever demanded by Indian establishment. It is therefore, essential to reassess the ground realities that will reshape the character of Madhesh in general and JSP along with its leaders in particular. This would have a bearing on India’s long term relations with Nepal.

 

End Notes:

[i] People’s Review (2020) “Baburam’s Demotion in Janta Samajbadi Party”, June 8, at https://www.peoplesreview.com.np/2020/06/08/baburams-demotion-in-janata-samajbadi-party/, Retrieved on September 20, 2020.

[ii] The Voices of Madhesh (2020) “Upendra yadav Did Not Quit Govt to Unite With RJP: Upendra Mahato”, January 13, at https://madheshvani.com/en/detail/4292/upendra-yadav-did-not-quit-govt-to-unite-with-rjp, Retrieved on September 21, 2020.

[iii] Ratopati (2020) “पाकिस्तानी दूतावास जाने नेतृमाथि समाजवादी पार्टीले चलायो कारबाहीको डण्डा”, at https://ratopati.com/story/109883/2019/12/14/rekha, Retrieved on September 21, 2020.

 

Dr Geeta Kochhar is an Asst Prof at the JNU, Centre for Chinese and South East Asian Studies, School of Language Literature and Culture Studies, and China Fudan FDDI Ambassador in South Asia. She is also part of the Resource Faculty of the USI of India.
Article uploaded on 01-10-2020
Disclaimer:
 The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI of India.

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