A day after Nepal was struck by two powerful earthquakes, felling many buildings and killing many people, apart from trapping many more – the whole world was quick to react with sympathy and help.
But the most unprecedented was Indian government’s reaction. Speaking to Indians on radio the very next day 1.e. Sunday Modi in his ‘Mann ki Baat’ surprised many by not referring to Indian farmers plight after unseasonal rains but devoting most of his talk to the earthquake in Nepal and promising that India will go all out to help this neigbour and its people who are “almost like Indians for us” said Modi.India lost no time in sending aircraft to Kathmandu carrying disaster response forces, medical teams, food, medicines and rescue equipment.
Not to be outdone Xi Jinping of China was also quick to convey his condolences.
China promptly flew in rescue teams, sniffer dogs, medical equipment, tents, blankets and generators.
The competition for influence in Nepal between the Asian giants is not new, but it appears to have escalated in recent years.
Nepal’s ties with India run deep and are often, very complex. It is a love-hate story. Many in Nepal – including the Maoists – have criticised its “semi-colonial” relationship with India, spoken about Indian “expansionism” and pointed to how their impoverished country had become India’s “bonded market”. Indian traders have controlled much of the lucrative parts of Nepal’s economy. Asymmetrical water sharing treaties, many argue, have allowed downstream irrigation benefits for India. Nepalese opposition parties, playing the nationalist card, have sometimes thrived on anti-India rhetoric; and Maoists have derided other mainstream parties as India’s brokers.
On the other hand, Delhi is geographically, linguistically and culturally much closer to Nepal than China. The anti-India rhetoric softens when political parties come to power. “India has been a political player in Nepal as much as any Nepali political party,” says Michael Hutt, professor of Nepali and Himalayan studies at the University of London.
Nepalese citizens continue to serve in the Gurkha regiment in Indian army; and Nepalese soldiers are trained in India. India also remains a main supplier of weapons to the Himalayan state. The fact that the two countries share an open border means that India’s core interest in Nepal is security, writes Prashant Jha, in Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal, an incisive account of its chequered recent history. “Delhi needs a friendly regime in Kathmandu to prevent China from gaining space at its expense.”
China’s influence in the region appears to be growing rapidly. Last year India was trounced by China by being the biggest contributor to Nepal’s economy investing heavily, in roads, power plants, transport and infrastructure. Trade between the two countries is on an upswing. Beijing has not minced words in telling Kathmandu that it needs to tamp down on pro-Tibet activists on its soil.
Is China’s growing role in Nepal making India skittish? Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made the neighbourhood his foreign policy priority and sphere of influence. India, clearly, wants to minimise Chinese influence in the neighbourhood. No wonder then that the pace and scale with which Mr Modi reacted to the tragedy was rather unprecedented. “There is a feeling in India that Nepal cannot be allowed to go China’s way,” says an observor. “There is a feeling that China has made too many inroads into Nepal.”