When Nepal Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal returned to Kathmandu on June 3 after a four-day official visit to India, he expressed great satisfaction at a personal level. He projected the confidence of a man who had been successful in bringing about a thaw in the bilateral relationship and doing many things that his predecessors could not.
This show of confidence is not new. Every king and every Prime Minister returns thinking they have done more than others, but today, with social media as a platform for everyone to express their opinions, it is tough to get away with this narrative like the kings of yore, who travelled with delegations of their choice, including photographers and reporters. The world is now a different place.
The visiting Prime Minister’s itinerary was worked out by the National Security Adviser (NSA). Therefore, it did not matter that External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar was not present during the official talks. Jaishankar had met the Nepali Ambassador formally only 14 months after the Ambassador took charge in Delhi. Jaishankar was the Foreign Secretary during the blockade of Nepal in 2015, and it seems as if he continues to see the neighbourhood as an irritant rather than as nations India needs to build relationships with. So Prime Minister Prachanda, accompanied by his daughter, held talks with the NSA and the Foreign Secretary. No other member of the Nepali official delegation was present.
Prachanda carefully provided the optics seen as useful in present India: draped in saffron robes and partaking in Hindu rituals. Nepal Foreign Minister N.P. Saud’s wife is the vice president of the Vishwa Hindu Mahasangh in Nepal, and she apparently pulled all the strings to ensure these visuals.
For the first time, a visiting Nepali Prime Minister did not meet any opposition leader and had no engagements at think tanks or academic institutions. It was a visit of appeasement and of seeking blessings from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Hindu brigade; in this endeavour, Prachanda was successful.
The announcements made during those four days were not of the kind that are usually made during prime ministerial visits. Seven agreements were signed, including ones on energy, trade, and connectivity, but the announcements on power export and trade are nothing new, nor is the issue on facilitating payments. The sticking point is how to implement these agreements, which have been pending for years. The new air route agreements, the fundamental agreements for which were finalised 26 years ago during Prime Minister I.K. Gujral’s visit, did not feature in the discussions. The credibility of such agreements is therefore poor. It is all about follow-ups and implementation.
GMR, an Indian company that signed an agreement in 2014 to build the 900 MW Upper Karnali project, has not been able to get its act together even after a decade and has asked for an extension until 2024—to arrange financing. Similarly, the foundation stone for an International Buddhist Centre was laid by Prime Minister Modi amid much fanfare a year ago, but nothing has happened so far.
Just a little over a year after Modi’s visit to Nepal in 2014 and the major support given by India after the April 2015 earthquake came the five-month blockade following the promulgation of Nepal’s constitution in September 2015. India was largely perceived to have supported the blockade that stopped oil and other essentials from entering land-locked Nepal.
The blockade took the Nepal-India relationship to a historic low. Then, as part of addressing the broader relationship, including the revision of the Nepali India Friendship Treaty of 2015, an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) was formed in 2016, announced jointly at a prime ministerial meeting. The EPG report was ready in 2018, but it has not been submitted yet. For India, this might be just one of many such reports that are commissioned, but for Nepalis this was the panacea to correct the ills of the past and build a foundation for the future. The current visit did not raise the issue of the EPG or of border talks.
India went on to release a map in November 2019 that showed parts of Nepali territory as its own. Nepal retaliated with a map in January 2020 claiming the parts that featured in the Indian map. In May 2020, when Defence Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted his delight in inaugurating “the Link Road to Mansarovar Yatra”, all hell broke loose in Nepal since this road passed through territory that Nepal claims as its own. These critical land issues have not been discussed in formal platforms yet, despite Nepal’s request for dialogue. The “Akhand Bharat” map in India’s new Parliament building has raised a fresh storm, and the Kathmandu Mayor has reacted by hanging a Greater Nepal map in his office.
- Nepal Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda”’s four-day India trip that ended on June 3 was a visit of appeasement aimed at Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindutva brigade.
- Although several agreements were announced during the visit and Prachanda met Modi on June 1, the EPG report and the issue of disputed territories were not discussed.
- People-to-people relations are crucial in forming ties between neighbours in the region.
- India and Nepal are both rapidly changing and this must be taken into account in attempts to nurture bilateral relations.
Optics of foreign policy
For the future of relationships between the two countries, it is important to understand how the two have transformed over the past decade. There is a new India, where the optics of a successful foreign policy revolves around how deferent neighbouring leaders are to Prime Minister Modi. Indians believe they now lead the Global South in a multipolar world.
India has been able to successfully buy cheap oil from Russia and is sought after by the US as its preferred partner in Asia. It wants to position itself next to China as a manufacturing hub and projects itself as wielding great influence in the Pacific islands and Africa.
India has grown in economic statistics as well as economic disparity. Investments are pouring in, and it does not seem to matter what the unemployment figures are. It is important to understand this new India, what it thinks are transactional foreign policy issues and what to it are not important, such as sorting out boundary issues or building credibility in the neighbourhood. If it is perceived as being arrogant and rude, it does not mind. It will not want to change because, as the title of Rama Bijapurkar’s book aptly says, “We Are Like That Only”.
There is also a new Nepal, with Nepalis in 180 countries and one whose young people hardly interact with India. It is a Federal Democratic Secular Republic with 753 local governments and seven provinces, with power moving from the seats of the Singha Durbar in Kathmandu to different units across Nepal.
It is a country with 50 per cent of its population aged under 25 and nurturing global aspirations. For them, India is equally dependent on Nepal since it is a land of opportunity for Indian workers and small Indian-owned businesses; since $3 billion flows from Nepal to India each year against $1.5 billion from India to Nepal. Young Nepalis are connected to the world. The current parliament has new parties whose ranks are filled by young people, and who have a vote share that equals that of the Nepali Congress.
Elections are won without throwing money, with social media , women, and the diaspora deciding who gets elected. It is important for India to understand this new Nepal.
Geography and neighbourhoods cannot change; they constitute a reality that we must live and work with. We also need to understand that political relationships between national capitals are different and what is important is a strong foundation of people-to people relationships. When Nepal in the 1950s and 1960s was India-locked, just opening up to the world, the politics was as complicated as now, but the people-to-people connect made the relationship tick. The people on the borders have to be at the centre of conversations, with fresh deas like Border Economic Zones. The new sub-regional bloc of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal (BBIN), which I refer to as “East Southasia”, has to be the fundamental structure to ensure regional cooperation around tourism, trade, transport, energy, and investments.
We need more think tanks and academic institutions working to make the relationship succeed. There must be more Nepal Centres in India and India Centres in Nepal that do evidence-based and research-based analysis that will form the bedrock of formal discussions and resolutions rather than let politicians hijack the bilateral issues.
For India, I have continuously raised the issue of having a separate neighbourhood cadre in the foreign service.
Similarly, Nepal needs to create a separate unit right at the Prime Minister’s Office to deal with India and China. The attention needs to be upgraded at both ends to resolve outstanding issues and build mutually beneficial relationships for the future.
Sujeev Shakya is Chair of Nepal Economic Forum. He is author of Unleashing The Vajra and Unleashing Nepal.