New Delhi’s troubles with Nepal are suddenly centerstage, with Nepal’s Prime Minster K.P. Sharma Oli asserting claims to territory that India controls at the Nepal-India-China trijunction. Whatever be the reason for Nepal’s loud claims now, New Delhi should recognise more fundamental changes in the region that require it to handle such outbursts much more carefully. Unfortunately, India’s reaction was noticeably harsher compared to the first statement it made about the border confrontation with China.
It is quite possible that PM Oli is doing this out of domestic political or ideological compulsions, or even at the behest of China, as the Army chief General M.M Naravane has hinted. But for New Delhi, the expansion of China’s power into South Asia is a reality that changes the dynamic between India and its smaller neighbours, and this requires careful handling.
Just as India needs to frame its broad foreign policy acknowledging the consequences of its relative weakness vis-à-vis China and the US, it also needs to understand the repercussions of its own far greater power on its much weaker neighbours like Nepal. For them, India is a giant that can do them harm even without intending to. The result is that they tend to be very insecure and sensitive to even perceived slights and challenges to their sovereignty. This is not always a reflection on Indian behavior, but an understandable response to their own condition.
This insecurity forces them to look for support from other powerful states to help manage the imbalance of power with India. Until now, they have had no one else who were both capable of and willing to do this. There have always been other powers outside the region that could have helped them, such as the US or Russia, but these countries had little interest in helping small states like Nepal or Sri Lanka balance India because good relations with India topped their priority.