Nepal Premier’s Visit Presents A Great Opportunity To Recast Indo-Nepal Ties

Nepal Premier’s Visit Presents A Great Opportunity To Recast Indo-Nepal TiesPrime Minister Narendra Modi (R) with Nepal Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli in New Delhi in 2016. (Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • Oli has invested a lot of political capital in improving ties with India. Now India needs to reciprocate with warmth and magnanimity.

Nepal’s new communist prime minister, Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, has taken a positive step in mending ties with India by sticking to tradition and choosing New Delhi for his maiden foreign trip starting tomorrow (6 April).

Oli, who had blamed India for the debilitating economic blockade in 2015 and for engineering his ouster from power the next year, had walked into China’s bear hug. Indian diplomats had feared that he would try to snub New Delhi by choosing Beijing as his first destination after becoming Prime Minister since his impressive victory at the polls at the end of 2017. However, Oli has opted to stick to a long tradition of Nepal prime ministers choosing New Delhi as their first foreign port-of-call after assuming office. In doing so, he has sent a clear message to New Delhi that he would like to start with a clean slate.

Oli is said to have told his close aides that he is keen to bury the bitter past and move forward. Indian diplomats have also been briefed about Oli’s intent. Oli was, in fact, seen as India’s friend before ties with him soured over Nepal’s draft Constitution which, India felt, was depriving the Madhesis (inhabitants of the foothills bordering India) of their legitimate political rights.

The Madhesis have close ethnic ties with the people of eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. They launched a violent agitation in August-September 2015 over demarcation of new provinces in Nepal’s draft Constitution. The demarcation, they felt, was aimed at depriving them of their political rights by fractionating them in areas where they were an ethnic majority. New Delhi was seen to have sided with the Madhesis and this created a lot of resentment against India in the Himalayan country. Oli and his countrymen held India responsible for the blockade that precipitated a humanitarian crisis in the landlocked country, even though New Delhi denied any role in the blockade (in which border checkpoints on the transit routes to Nepal from India were blocked, stopping the movement of all commodities from India to Nepal).

China took advantage of the opportunity provided by the blockade and the anti-India sentiments and wooed Oli, who signed a slew of trade and transit agreements with Beijing. China got to increase its footprint in Nepal and India found itself sidelined.

Oli had formed the government in 2015 under a power-sharing deal with Pushpa Kumar Dahal (better known as Prachanda), the leader of another communist party in Nepal. But his refusal to vacate the Prime Minister’s post for Dahal after his agreed-upon tenure ended in mid-2016 resulted in Dahal’s party leaving the coalition and joining hands with the Nepali Congress to form the government. Oli once again accused India of plotting his ouster. However, Dahal and Oli reached an electoral pact in early October last year. This agreement, said to have been brokered by China, caught New Delhi and even the people of Nepal completely unawares. When the communist alliance swept the provincial and federal polls in Nepal late last year, it was assumed that the country’s new communist rulers would take their country into China’s orbit.

The South Block (which houses the Ministry of External Affairs) started working diligently with the leaders of Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) and, through them, could manage to convince Oli that a fresh beginning in Indo-Nepal ties needed to be made. Prachanda, who has a blow-hot, blow-cold relationship with India, was also won over and made to understand that it was in the interests of both the countries to keep ties on an even keel. Senior politicians close to these two top leaders also impressed on them the dangers of getting too close to China, citing the debt trap that Sri Lanka and Myanmar had fallen into for blindly accepting Chinese-funded projects in those countries.

The Indian diplomats who communicated with Oli and Prachanda highlighted the close cultural, religious, and ethnic ties between India and Nepal. These, and also the geo-strategic compulsions ­– Nepal will never be able to meet all its food and material requirements from and through China and that lakhs of Nepalese citizens work in India as well as the Indian Army – led Oli to take a pragmatic stand on forging ties with India.

Oli agreeing to start afresh is, however, only a small roadblock in Indo-Nepal ties that has been crossed. Major hurdles in the form of slow pace of progress on a slew of infrastructure projects – highways and bridges within Nepal, railway and power transmission lines between the two countries, new transit routes and border facilities – as well as hydropower and irrigation projects promised by India to Nepal remain. Nepal is angry over the tardy pace of construction of these projects, especially when compared to the fast pace at which the Chinese work and complete projects. India needs to pull up its socks and put all these projects on the fast track.

India also needs to offer Nepal a preferential trade status so as to correct the bilateral trade imbalance that Nepal suffers from. And India also needs to walk the extra mile to convince Nepal that it has the interests of the Himalayan country at heart and would not interfere in its internal affairs.

Oli, by choosing New Delhi over Beijing as the first foreign capital of his visit after assuming office, has invested a lot of political capital in improving ties with India. Now India needs to reciprocate with warmth and magnanimity.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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