India & Nepal
By Dr. D.K. Giri
(Prof. International Politics, JMI)
The three-day visit last week of Nepalese Prime Minister KPS Oli turned out to be “fruitful, significant and historic”. It removed misunderstandings and revived the close affinity both countries have been having for ages. At least, for now, India’s concern about her closest neighbour drifting away was dispelled by his visit, which was meticulously handled by New Delhi.
What makes this visit different from the previous visits of Nepalese Prime Ministers including that of Oli in the past? There were at least four points of departure or innovation in the planning by both Kathmandu and Delhi. First, Oli was received by the ‘number two’ in the Modi’s Cabinet, Home Minister Rajnath Singh. Such protocol was not extended in the past. This newness underlined India’s seriousness in dealing with Nepal.
Second, the first delegation level meeting was organised with Indian business companies. Oli was reassured and encouraged by the overwhelming interest of Indian companies investing in Nepal. As Nepal is going through a difficult political transition, economic resurgence and stability is critical to maintain the political initiatives. Indian companies provided that scope needed by the Nepalese PM.
Third, the meetings were so organised that, New Delhi and Kathmandu draw maximum material benefit and political mileage. Oli met his counterpart Modi thrice, one of the meetings lasting up to an hour. This, in itself, was significant as both Prime Ministers could thrash out quite a few contentious issues and misperceptions.
It is a well-known that Oli and Modi are known for their strong views and dominant personalities. Both of them sorting things out is less risky, as, if it were left to diplomats and their junior ministers, their opinions and decisions could be turned down. Fourth, and important, for the first time, there was no mention by India of the Nepalese Constitution, the position of minorities, Madhesis or any internal issue. This was good news for the Nepalese back home who were increasingly being resistant to India’s meddling in their internal affairs out of either ‘vested interest or altruism’.
In the past, during the visit of former Nepalese Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba in 2017 and that of Oli in 2016, the joint statements could not be issued due to India’s insistence on mentioning Nepalese internal affairs like the Constitution and inclusivity etc. This was not the case this time around. The entire exchange was focused on bilateralism, and a joint statement was issued.
Finally, special sectors were targeted during the visit; namely the visit of Oli to the G.B. Pant Agricultural University in Pantnagar, Haldwani, UP was special. This was fixed, obviously, on the request of Kathmandu as it wanted to draw on India’s expertise in building its agricultural sector, vital to the livelihoods of Nepalese people. Oli, who was given an honorary doctorate by the university, said, “Nepal was wanting to usher in a ‘Green Revolution’ like the one India had, with the help of Indian agriculture experts.” To start the process of cooperation in agriculture, India agreed to conduct a pilot project on organic farming and soil health monitoring in Nepal to help the natural resource-rich neighbour in developing agriculture and allied sectors.
Some of the new links made during the visit are meant to reboot India-Nepal relations. To start with the rail links, the agreement in connecting Raxaul with Kathmandu through an electrified rail line. The smaller links such as the 28-km link between Jainagar and Janakpur and the 18-km from Jobbani to Viratnagar are of immediate importance. The other is the water link. A landmark decision was taken to develop inland waterways for cargo movement within the framework of trade and transit arrangements, providing additional access to sea for Nepal. This is likely to enhance cost-effective and efficient movement of cargo and greatly impact the growth of business and economy of Nepal.
Defence and security links were reiterated. The India-Nepal friendship treaty of 1950 was invoked. This agreement was lauded as breaking new ground in India-Nepal relations. Modi said, “With our assistance, Nepal will get an extra connectivity to the sea. The country of the Everest will be able to connect directly to the ocean. Nepal will not only be land-linked, but water-linked also. I believe that this is a historical beginning”.
Oli has learnt his lessons. He made India his first foreign visit since he took over as Prime Minister for the second time. He had rubbed India on the wrong side in 2015 when he had become Prime Minister with the support of Prachanda. The Madhesis who were demanding an amendment to the Constitution in favour of their just demands on representation etc; in furtherance of their demand, they erected a blockade on Indian-Nepalese border allegedly at the behest of Government of India.
Oli became defiant, refused to amend the Constitution, went ahead to sign a trade agreement with China apparently to put pressure on India. But his government failed as Prachanda withdrew support, again at the behest of India. Oli, with a formal alliance with Prachanda’s party likely to merge with Oli’s Communist Party, won the elections again and returned to Prime Ministership.
Arguably, both domestic and regional politics have changed considerably since Oli visited New Delhi in 2016. It was the time of the infamous blockade. Let us recall that India was slighted at Nepal’s major political parties, including Oli’s Communist Party (CPN-UML) failing to take New Delhi into confidence about the content of the new Constitution. On the contrary, Nepalese leaders insisted that it was Kathmandu’s internal affairs. Oli lost the government, made a rapprochement with Prachanda, made a pre-poll alliance with the latter and won the elections handsomely. As both the parties are about to merge, Prachanda’s Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist-Centre) and Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal, he speaks now from a position of strength.
Obviously, both Kathmandu and New Delhi have learnt their lessons and are resetting relations between the two closest neighbours. New Delhi should stop interfering in internal politics of Nepal unless asked for. Kathmandu should stop “blackmailing” India by sending overtures to China.
India hosts nearly 6 million Nepalese who earn their living in different cities. India is also the largest trading partner and investor of Nepal. It seems pragmatism has prevailed over posturing and perceptions. Oli said at the Rashtrapati Bhawan, “Friendship is important. Our friendship is historical, renewed, developed and is very fruitful”. As of now India and Nepal are on a renewed friendship until they hit the next road block. Hopefully, such road blocks would be removed with sagacity and diplomacy and transparency in friendship.
New Delhi should also bear in mind that since Nepal is a smaller country, Kathmandu will play India against China and vice versa in their relationship. New Delhi need not get worked up instead it should re-assure Kathmandu of its continued handholding and rebuilding Nepal. Given the historical-cultural ties between the two countries, Nepal will remain close to India if it is made to feel secure and acknowledged. India should desist from a patron-client model and embrace an endearing elder-brotherly approach. This visit should give that message to our venerated South Block.—INFA