Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal should be focusing on forming a full cabinet, dealing with the Kosi embankment collapse and kick-starting governance. Instead, he has landed himself in a diplomatic soup. Extracting himself, and Nepal, from the mess will take more energy and political capital than he may possess.
"Why is India upset?" is the favourite question doing the rounds. Delhi's reaction should be seen in the context of China's role in the neighbourhood. Beijing and Dhaka get along very well even as India's relations with its eastern neighbour remain strained. China gives arms to Colombo while India watches the civil war from the side because of its domestic political constraints in Tamil Nadu. Sino-Pakistani relations have always been a source of concern.
And now add Beijing's stepped up activities in Kathmandu, which even China had conceded lies in the Indian sphere of influence. The media reported on the presence of the RAW station chief at Dahal's house immediately before the UML and Maoist alliance broke off during the presidential polls. Interestingly, the UML delegation had come over to Naya Bajar the same night after a dinner at the Chinese embassy, which was understood to be backing such an alliance.
China has stepped up contacts with the Maoist military leadership. And it is making increasingly public assertions, through former envoys and academics, warning of Nepal's 'Sikkimisation'.
There is a school of thought in the Delhi security establishment which views China's South Asia policy as intended to "encircle" India. And they are skeptical of Nepali Maoists who they dub "Chinese agents". The liberal diplomats at the MEA and PMO in Delhi do not necessarily share this view. They see the broader relationship with China as competitive but not confrontational. They had to fight a long battle within the system to back Nepal's peace process, welcome the Maoists win, and not block the formation of their government.
In one stroke, Dahal's Beijing visit reinforced the views of the hawks, and weakened the position of those who have given the Maoists the benefit of doubt. No one in Delhi accepts that this was an "Olympics visit". China is seen to be sending out a message to India that it can create trouble in its backyard if it wants, a message that attains more salience since the nuclear deal that brought India and the US closer. Prachanda is sending out a 'nationalist' message to his constituency that he is different from those who bowed down before 'Indian expansionism'.
India, too, needs to be more confident about its influence in Nepal. If its core policy goal is to create a stable Nepal, then why is it growing perturbed? China is not engineering instability. If India and China can have trade worth more than $50 billion, why can't Nepal and China engage more closely? If there were concerns, India should have expressed them subtly and not by planting stories through Delhi-based Nepali journalists that PM Singh is 'pained'. The views of sources in South Block, as reported in Kantipur, have led to impressions of India being petty.
But the Nepali side must be indicted for its callous attitude to the apprehensions of our most important neighbour. Prachanda needs to think of ways of extracting benefits from China without antagonising India.
Upendra Yadav's equidistance statement flies in the face of the facts. At least half of this country has close family and cultural ties on the Indian side, millions of our workers benefit from employment in India, our natural resources are intertwined, even life and death do not recognise the border?as we are seeing in the Kosi. Delhi has engineered every key political shift in this country, and our politicians have no hesitation in pleading before even junior bureaucrats and mid-ranking leaders in Delhi. Who is Yadav trying to fool?
If the Nepali political class wants equidistance, it needs to get its act together and think from a national perspective and not a party perspective. What does Nepal want from India? What is it willing to give in return? Let us do a similar exercise with China. Right now, parties and politicians are playing off one against the other for their own personal benefit.
As Birendra learnt in 1989 and Gyanendra later, playing India and China off against each other doesn't work. And the country will suffer in the process.