Many domestic factors are at play in the anticipated process of state restructuring in Nepal, ranging from an increasingly polarized populace for and against ethnicity-based federalization to the consistent ineptitude of political leaders failing to lead from the front to seek a meeting point between conflicting interests. But the increasingly prominent posturing of Nepal’s two giant neighbors on these issues threatens to sabotage the whole process and push Nepal further into chaos.

“When the uneasy relationship between two Asian giants degenerates into a confrontation, Nepal will find it extremely difficult to balance its relations with them. In such a situation, weaknesses in Indo-Nepal relations would be open to exploitation by unfriendly elements.” This is how Col. R. Hariharan, a retired Indian Military Intelligence Specialist associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies, sums up the predicament of Nepal’s foreign policy amid the changing nature of relationship between the two rising Asian powers.

Writing on the Journal of Defense Studies under the heading of “China’s Expanding Footprint in Nepal: Threats to India”, Dr. Satish Kumar, Assistant Professor at one Indian university writes: “The strengthening of bilateral ties between the two countries is quite natural. But China’s overstepping in Nepal has a real and concrete strategic impact on India’s Himalayan security.”

These two statements reflect the increasing realization on the Indian side of the intensifying Asian tug-of-war that the latest interactions between Nepal and China are something qualitatively different from those in the past when India used to take its influence in Nepal for granted. From the geopolitical view, China’s increasing influence in Nepal can be viewed as a part of its increasing assertiveness in general and India’s attempts at retaining the centuries long influence in the tiny northern neighbor is also understandable. These are indeed the recurrent themes of the interactions that have been taking place between Nepal and either of the two neighbors over past many years.

To date, as can be explained by discrepancy in terms of economic, political, and military power, politicians and diplomats from Kathmandu have contributed little towards shaping the relationship of Nepal with either of the two neighbors. Rather, the motives and actions of either New Delhi or Beijing have shaped and reshaped those relationships. This makes even a small overture by either of those capitals to Kathmandu very significant as the other capital is likely to view the same with alarm and suspicion.

As a result, it has been long felt in Nepal that the politicians in Kathmandu have miserably failed in preserving the core national interests vis-a-vis the neighbors by either deferring to their interest unnecessarily (usually when they are at power) or antagonizing them through hollow rhetoric towards mean political gains (obviously when they are in streets). This phenomenon is much more prominent in relation to India, which does not hesitate being seen taking sides in confrontations between various actors and institutions in Nepal; unlike China, which plays more subtle and covert role. In this backdrop, the preferential treatment of different political parties and leaders by either of the two neighbors is not uncommon.

Over past many months, the conflicting positions of the two neighbors in the question of thorniest issue in Nepal’s transition have increasingly come to the fore: the yet undecided process of state restructuring that is supposed to follow the implementation of the new constitution. While India visibly prefers the ethnicity-based federalization of the state with as much autonomy to the southern plains of Terai (that is increasingly identified as ‘Madhesh’ as more preferred political unit) as possible, same possibility has become a matter of ominous concern for China which prefers stabilization of Nepal with as little change in status quo as possible. The matters went nearly out of hand of Kathmandu politicians drawing strong protest from people about two months back when one Indian diplomat reportedly prompted the Nepali politicians in the southern plains of Madhesh to bring a “storm of protest” for identity of the plains.

The situation was problematic enough even when the Constituent Assembly (CA) was in existence until two months ago, with the assembly fumbling to get the job of writing the constitution done on time amid the failure of political forces to agree on issues crucial to state restructuring. After the tragic collapse of that institution with its failure, the uncertainty has increased and the problems seem to only multiply for everyone, from Nepali politicians to the governments and diplomats in the two neighbors.

In this context, some of the latest developments in Nepal need special mention. Mohan Baidya, the president of CPN-Maoist (that was formed after splitting the Unified CPN (Maoist), the largest party in erstwhile CA), recently completed his 10-day trip to China. On return, he was unequivocal on passing a message from Beijing that China was “against any foreign interference in Nepal in the name of federalism”. It could be clearly read in the statement that the Chinese side had tried to woo Baidya away from the stance of ethnicity-based federalization, something his party has remained mum about since its birth, even though most of the leaders had been strongly advocating the former before the split.

The wording and intention of the message from Beijing aside, Baidya’s engagement with China is sure to create discomfort in his former party, the UCPN (Maoist) which is still in power in Kathmandu amid many difficulties and confusion. At one front, the UCPN (Maoist) has been known for inconsistency in its foreign policy characterized by India-bashing while at the street and India-embracing once in power. Indeed, the current government led by Dr. Baburam Bhattarai in alliance with the Madhesh-based regional political parties is said to be one of the most pro-India governments in recent past, even though many analysts portray it as merely pragmatic government.

At another front, the Maoist party before split was the vociferous advocate of identity-based federalization of Nepal, mainly because that had been the slogan around which it had galvanized the support of masses from marginalized communities during its decade long ‘People’s War’; a position which now increasingly raises China’s discomfiture. In principle, the post-split UCPN (Maoist) still maintains that position, but in absence of any mechanism to move forward in the issue of state restructuring, they can afford to continue sending the ambiguous message on the issue for the time being even as the confusion around the whole political process intensifies.

In the meantime, K. P. Oli, another seasoned politician from another communist outfit CPN (UML),  has reportedly pleaded to the highest authority in New Delhi to hear the grievances of the opposition parties in Nepal, who bitterly criticize the Maoists for clinging to power after collapse of the CA instead of seeking the alternative of ‘national unity government’. The fact that Oli even presented himself as the prospective PM of Nepal in a foreign capital tells a lot about the role New Delhi plays in shaping the outcomes of power tussle in Kathmandu.

Ironically, while the Bhattarai led government in Kathmandu is believed to be enduring because its stances on crucial issues are more pro-Indian than those of past governments, Oli has tried to precisely outsmart the former on the same front by convincing the Indian establishment. Indeed, during the tenure of Madhav Nepal as PM in the recent past, the alienation of the Maoists by an alliance of almost all non-Maoist forces with blessings from India had led to rude India-bashing by the former.

But now some deep paradoxes have developed in Nepal’s political arena surrounding the issue of state restructuring. First, with vocal opposition of the identity-based federalization, the erstwhile center-right forces like CPN (UML) and Nepali Congress (for whom India’s blessing was ‘usual’ and ‘natural’ as opposed to the leftist Maoists who apparently favored closer ties with China) have pushed themselves into increasingly awkward position with India. While it is yet to be seen what policies the UCPN (M) adopts after ouster from power some day in future, their natural course seems to be more convergent with the one India would wish for them to follow. This is sure to prompt Beijing to distance itself from their once-trusted party, something the newly formed CPN-M wishes very badly.

Coming to domestic considerations, the calculus of vote politics is such that the issue of federalization of the country can no way be sidelined and stances of political parties on this particular issue are going to matter more than anything else in the upcoming polls, savagely polarized by the intense and often violent debate over many months before the fateful dissolution of the CA. Political parties advocating the ethnicity-based federalization of the country are likely to garner votes of people from ethnic groups that felt marginalized in the past, while those against that process are sure to be favored by high-caste people from the hills who have been dominating the state machinery till now.

Thus the issue of federalization, while becoming that of prime concern for the neighbors, has come to be vital for near as well as remote future of the political forces in the country.

And exactly for the same reason, the whole debate surrounding state restructuring in Nepal has been sabotaged and degenerated into the vicious tug-of-war between and among the vested interests. The verbal duels among politicians to appease a particular section of population apart, the real and constructive debate to seek the optimum mechanism to address the grievance of the people is altogether missing. While extremist views for and against the ethnicity-based federalization spread among the populace like wild fire further polarizing the people, political parties are as busy wrangling for the chair of PM in Kathmandu as ever.

It is not hard to follow the developments in Kathmandu and see whether Beijing’s interests get upper hand or those of New Delhi do, but the tussle makes the negotiated settlement of divisive issue of state restructuring in Nepal increasingly untenable.

Not that either Beijing or New Delhi is to be blamed for the misfortune; it is natural for them to advance their own interests. It is the myopia and ineptitude of the leadership in Kathmandu that fails to reach the crux of the problem Nepal faces. Rather than travelling to Delhi or Beijing for blessings, they should be in dialogue among themselves and with the masses to convince them that a compromise means as much losing something as gaining something and negotiated settlement is the only way to better future as opposed to the polarization along extremist lines.

Nepal is obviously vulnerable to the tectonic shifts going on in world politics, and changing dynamics of the Sino-Indian relationship is going to impact the future of this small country. But so long as the politicians in Kathmandu keep seeking the blessings of one neighbor or the other to outpace their rivals as a more convenient alternative to painstaking negotiations and compromises at home, Nepal is going to look more like a battlefield of increasingly acrimonious regional powers rather than a sovereign and independent nation.

Add to that the chaos resulting from the leaders following the whims of crowds rather than judiciously leading them in issues as sensitive and divisive as state restructuring that makes a perfect recipe for a disaster.

Yet all hope is not lost. Nepal’s best way forward is a comprehensive dialogue on all issues including state restructuring among the political powers and all other stakeholders, something that was amiss in the attempts to sort out those thorny issues last time around, followed by political mechanism acceptable to all. On federalization, a settlement may not entirely conform to the wishes of either India or China but they will be happy to live with a stable Nepal regardless of whether their interests are preserved or not in the particular process. In the long run, that is indeed in best interests of all the parties.