Here’s Why The Time Is Now Ripe For A Turnaround In India-Nepal Ties
Dahal is visiting India now and our leaders should walk that extra mile to convince Kathmandu and the people of Nepal that India is Nepal’s ‘all-weather friend’.
It is in India’s strategic interest to help Nepal grow economically and honour its past commitments in infrastructure development in that country.
A year since Indo-Nepalese ties nosedived to hit an all-time low, the four-day visit by Nepal’s Premier Pushpa Kamal Dahal to India from today (Thursday) presents a wonderful opportunity for both the countries not only to restore the age-old cordial ties, but also take relations to a new high.
Relations between the two countries deteriorated sharply soon after the pro-China Khagda Prasad Sharma Oli (of Nepal’s Communist Party of Nepal--Unified Marxist Leninist) took over as Prime Minister of Nepal in October last year. Oli’s refusal to consider the demands of the Madhesis dwelling in south Nepal along the border with India and the consequent intensification of the blockade of transit routes along the border by the Madhesis caused the sharp downslide in ties between the two countries.
Oli, who tried his best to steer Nepal away from India towards China, had to resign at the end of July this year after his government was reduced to a minority. Last-ditch and desperate efforts by China to keep Oli in power failed and his exit was seen as a setback to China and a major gain for India.
Oli’s successor Dahal, better known by his nom de guerre Prachanda (the fierce one) from his days as leader of the decade-long Maoist insurgency (from 1996-2006) that wracked the Himalayan country leaving about 20,000 dead and displacing 1.5 lakh people, succeeded Oli. This is Dahal’s second stint in power — he was prime minister for a year from 2008, but had to resign following differences with then president Ram Baran Yadav.
Dahal was, then, quite anti-India and had even accused India of interference in his country’s internal affairs and forcing him to resign. But he has changed tack since then and has not only refrained from indulging in anti-Indian rhetoric, but also emerged as a votary of improved India-Nepal ties, something that even the Chinese media noted with concern three years ago. Dahal has long realised that being anti-Indian will not help him or any other Nepali politicians and has even admitted this.
It is, thus, important for India to treat Dahal regally during his visit to this country, but also be generous and address the concerns raised by him. On the eve of his visit, Prachanda had said that the focus of his trip would be to improve ties with India after the bitterness of the past. Nepal’s Foreign Minister Prakash Sharan Mahat, who was on a preparatory visit to India earlier this week, said that Dahal’s visit would add a new chapter to India-Nepal ties.
But all these eloquent statements apart, Nepal has a number of demands and issues that need to be addressed. And addressed urgently. High on that list is the Pancheshwar Multipurpose Project, a joint venture between India and Nepal that was part of the Mahakali Treaty signed between the two countries in 1996. No progress was made on the construction of the Pancheshwar (which, when completed, will be the second-largest in the world) till Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Nepal in August 2014 when the two countries signed pacts to start work on the 5,600 MW project. But things slowed down last year after anti-Indian sentiments peaked in that country at the instigation of (then) prime minister Oli. India has to assure Dahal that work on this project will be expedited.
Another bump in the way of improving ties between the two countries is the 1,700 km-long Hulaki Highway, or the ‘postal highway’ (Hulaki means postal in Nepali) that will connect east Nepal to its far western part and will run roughly parallel to the India-Nepal border. The two countries reached an agreement for construction of this highway more than a decade ago and India pledged Rs 800 crore to fund its construction. But not much progress has been made in its construction. This is another sore point with the people of Nepal and India has to honour its commitment and expedite work on this project.
As Nepal’s foreign minister rightly said at the end of his visit to New Delhi this week, early completion of these two and several other pending joint (India-Nepal) projects “would help create an environment of trust between the two countries”. Dahal has said that the other projects he would take up with India are the proposed rail links between the two countries that India had committed to construct, immediate construction of integrated checkposts at Bhairahawa and Biratnagar along with the resumption of the Birganj checkpost and reducing the whopping $3.5 billion (or Rs 22,400 crore) trade deficit between the two countries.
Nepal wants duty-free access of its products to India and the lowering of all non-tariff barriers by India for its goods and services. India ought to have no problems doing so. Nepal also wants Indian capital (India is in fourth place as far as private investments in Nepal is concerned, China is in first place) and will roll out a slew of incentives for Indian investors. New Delhi should do its bit to encourage Indian industrialists and entrepreneurs to go to Nepal.
Dahal’s visit will be followed by a state visit by President Pranab Mukherjee to Nepal in November this year. Dahal will also invite Prime Minister Narendra Modi to visit Nepal again. “This time I will invite him (Modi) to visit Janakpur, Lumbini and Muktinath, important Hindu and Buddhist pilgrim sites of Nepal,” Dahal said on the eve of his India visit. This is significant because Oli had invited Modi to Budh Purnima celebrations at Lumbini in May this year soon after he returned from China after signing a few agreements that were seen as a snub to India. Modi did not travel to Nepal that time, but has said on many occasions that he is keen to visit Lumbini and other pilgrimage spots in that country.
Dahal has repeatedly said (before embarking on his current visit) that his priority would be to mend ties with India that had been severely damaged by his predecessor. It is in the interests of both the countries to restore their age-old cordial ties of shared religions, cultures and ethnicities. It is in India’s strategic interest to help Nepal grow economically and honour its past commitments in infrastructure development in that country. Dahal is visiting India now and our leaders should walk that extra mile to convince Kathmandu and the people of Nepal that India is Nepal’s ‘all-weather friend’, not China as Oli had infamously said during his visit to China earlier this year.
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