Vinay Mohan Kwatra, an IFS veteran, has a tough task at hand, but he is determined to put India-Nepal ties back on track.
Kwatra hit the ground running immediately after presenting his credentials to Nepal’s President Bidya Devi Bhandari last Thursday (5 March).
He met half a dozen senior Nepali politicians in the next 24 hours, a feat that, according to Kathmandu’s political observers, is unparalleled.
Among the Nepali leaders the Indian envoy met were Vice-President Nanda Bahadur Pun, National Assembly Chairman Ganesh Timilsina, Deputy Prime Minister Ishwar Pokhrel, Nepali Congress president Sher Bahadur Deuba, Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali, Energy Minister Barsha Man Pun and Nepal Communist Party leader Madhav Kumar Nepal.
Over the weekend and since, Kwatra has kept up his engagement with Nepali politicians and civil society leaders. The envoy has a lot on his plate, and the immediate issues that need resolution are the territorial dispute (read and ), and timely completion of the many energy and connectivity projects that India is implementing in Nepal.
Kwatra’s appointment as the envoy is in itself a significant one.
A 1988 batch Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer, Kwatra’s last assignment was ambassador to France.
South Block (which houses the Ministry of External Affairs or MEA) mandarins told Swarajya that Kwatra played a key role in ensuring France’s support in the UN Security Council in recent times and in firming ties between India and France through cooperation on a host of issues.
“It is unusual for a career diplomat to be transferred from an important European nation to a country like Nepal. His appointment is an important milestone in the ‘neighbourhood-first’ policy of the present government,” said a senior MEA officer.
Kwatra is a highly experienced hand, having served in various UN agencies, in Indian missions in Africa and as deputy chief of mission in Beijing and, later, as Minister (Commerce) in the Indian Embassy in Washington.
Between July 2013 and October 2015, Kwatra headed the Policy Planning and Research Division of the Ministry of External Affairs and later served as the head of Americas Division in the Foreign Ministry, where he dealt with India’s relations with the United States and Canada.
Nepali leaders remember him for his five-year tenure from 2006 to 2010 as head of Trade, Economy and Finance Bureau at the SAARC Secretariat in Kathmandu.
Nepali Congress leader Udaya Shumsher Rana told Swarajya from Kathmandu that he had often interacted with Kwatra and found him to be “academically sound, well-versed in issues concerning Nepal”.
Dipak Adhikari, Nepal’s ambassador to France, who had many interactions with Kwatra in Paris, told The Kathmandu Post that the latter possessed a deep understanding of Indo-Nepalese ties and intricate issues concerning Nepal.
But it is Kwatra’s (from October 2015 till August 2017) as joint secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) that holds a lot of hope for the urgent and much-required re-calibration of Indo-Nepalese ties.
Having served in the PMO, he is said to have the Prime Minister’s ears and is also known to be close to Foreign Minister S Jaishankar.
A lot of groundwork for repairing bilateral ties that were severely damaged by what Nepalis call the was done by Kwatra’s predecessor Manjeev Singh Puri. Puri had initiated a slew of energy and connectivity projects for Nepal and worked hard to restore ties.
“Kwatra will now have to give those initiatives a big and hard push. He has to work assiduously towards an early resolution of the Kalapani issue and some other thorny issues that have become irritants in bilateral ties,” said the MEA officer.
The new Indian envoy also has the tough task of promoting and securing India’s interests in Nepal at a time when China has emerged as a major influence in the Himalayan country.
“A good way to cement ties with Nepal would be to push for quick completion of India-funded projects like the petroleum pipeline, postal road, energy transmission lines and integrated border checkposts,” said Durgesh man Singh, former Nepali ambassador to India.
“At the end of the day, people see and benefit from what is happening on the ground, so completing these projects will add more energy to bilateral ties,” said Singh. He added that resolving the Kalapani issue would be a feather in Kwatra’s cap and would win the hearts and minds of the people of Nepal.
Kwatra also has the tough task of establishing a good working relationship with Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli, who is perceived to be partial to Beijing.
“Winning Oli’s trust and weaning him away from China’s bear hug will be Kwatra’s primary task,” said the MEA officer.
Deputy chief of the ‘International Department’ of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP), Vishnu Rijal, has said that Kwatra’s meetings with NCP leaders and ministers have been positive.
“He knows Nepal and we hope he will be successful in improving bilateral ties,” said Rijal.
Nepal is keen on the implementation of the and Kwatra can leverage his old ties with the PMO to get the latter to quicken the pace of work on this. That, say Nepali leaders, would be another good deliverable for the new Indian envoy.
There is, say senior MEA officers, a lot at stake here.
“Indo-Nepalese ties had soured over many issues and though the ties have improved, a lot of work needs to be done to set it on an even keel and take it back to the pre-2015 days,” said the MEA officer, who had been posted in Kathmandu earlier.
Nepal, he pointed out, is an important neighbour and is crucial for India’s intention to curtail Beijing’s increasing influence in South Asia.
“We need to drastically improve ties with Nepal at multiple levels,” he added.
Kwatra’s appointment to the Indian mission in Kathmandu was made keeping all these issues in mind. And the new Indian envoy has his task, a tough one, cut out.