New Delhi: As Nepal goes to the polls to elect a new government today, 20 November, China’s strategists are in a massive discussion and deliberation mode on how to give a further push to Beijing’s agenda of growing political and economic influence once a new government is in place in Kathmandu. Towards this end, Beijing is planning to cash in on the various agreements that it has signed with Kathmandu over the past several days, ahead of the crucial elections in the Himalayan country. At the same time, India is not lagging behind. New Delhi is moving fast with preparations to counter China’s any possible move to reach out to the new government with the aim to expand its footprint in India’s neighbouring country.

Top diplomatic sources told The Sunday Guardian that India has prepared its “multi-pronged strategy” as a counter to Beijing’s game-plan to expand its presence in Nepal post the election. “Top diplomats held a meeting at South Block and reviewed the existing projects that India has funded in Nepal so far. Keeping in mind China’s agreement-signing spree with Nepal over the past few days, India will give a fillip to its existing projects in the Himalayan country, and will bring up some new ones on the table soon. There would be a flurry of visits by Indian leaders and diplomats to Nepal after the formation of the new government there, sources said. Top security officials would be joining the list, sources added. “More importantly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be the first world leader to make a congratulatory call to the leader who sails through the election to lead Nepal. Top diplomats of the Ministry of External Affairs are working round the clock to ensure this,” sources said.

What India is planning to impress upon the Nepalese government is that China may have signed several so-called development oriented pacts, but Kathmandu must not overlook what China’s past records suggest. “China never fulfilled and completed several of the projects, for which it signed agreements with Nepal earlier,” diplomats said. “This should serve as a warning signal for Nepal on China’s hidden agenda of laying a debt-trap for it. Sri Lanka is an eye-opener,” says an official. “All this is being explained to Nepal, and the leaders and diplomats in every meeting in Kathmandu in future would continue to caution it against China’s sly agenda,” say sources. In what has come as a positive message for India’s plan to continue to be in Nepal’s good books, Kathmandu invited India’s Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) as an international observer for the elections to Nepal’s House of Representatives and Provincial Assembly.

Ahead of the polls in Nepal, Beijing has been on a signing spree for projects in the Himalayan nation. The Nepal Army offered an important project to China, alerting the Indian security establishment. Eyebrows were raised as the Nepal Army abruptly awarded the contract for the sixth package of the Kathmandu-Terai-Madhesh expressway to a Chinese company—China First Highway Engineering Company. The Chinese contractor had been rejected earlier. However, the company lodged an official complaint with the Public Procurement Monitoring Office (PPMO), which comes under the Nepalese Prime Minister’s Office.

“Reports and updates at the highest level in the MEA and Defence Ministry were sought. The inputs were shared with the top leadership regarding the same here in Delhi,” sources said.

Nepal and China also signed an agreement for the utilisation of (Nepali) Rs 15 billion Chinese grants for various projects. Bishnu Pukar Shrestha, Nepalese ambassador to China, and Luo Zhaohui, chairman of the China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA), signed the agreement for grants on Tuesday in Beijing. The new grant is said to be in addition to the grant announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in Nepal in 2019. “Will China really complete these projects? Perhaps not, as it is aiming to just grow influence and presence in Nepal on the pretext of such projects keeping the India factor in mind,” says a diplomat. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar is personally working on the plan to ensure that Nepal does not fall into the trap of the Chinese, sources said. Jaishankar will be talking to top diplomats in Kathmandu as part of Delhi’s campaign to step up outreach to Nepal amidst growing Chinese activities.

The election in Kathmandu pits the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba against an opposition coalition fronted by former Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli. India is apprehensive of China trying to increasingly get more involved in Nepal’s domestic politics. The landlocked Himalayan nation needs to be alerted of China’s conspiracy to intervene in its internal politics to influence government formation, say diplomats, adding that Nepal is an important country for China’s plan to be assertive in South Asia.

India will keep an eye on how Kathmandu handles ties with New Delhi and Beijing, as both have been jostling for influence in the strategically important neighbouring country. Sources said that Chinese vice-minister for Culture and Tourism, Li Qun’s “unusual” visit to Kathmandu recently, is important, as he happens to be a key leader of the ruling party in China. Li also participated in the training of Nepali people on Chinese culture and literature in Kathmandu. This development is viewed as China’s plan to increase cultural influence in Nepal. “Traditionally, India has enjoyed close ties with Nepal, with which India shares an open border policy,” says a diplomat, adding, “there are several facts like this that make India a priority neighbour for Nepal which the government in Kathmandu will understand.”