OPINION: Nepal Prime Minister's Visit Leaves Modi and India Cold

OPINION: Nepal Prime Minister's Visit Leaves Modi and India Cold
Credit: Reuters/TPG
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India and Nepal have a trust deficit that is pushing Kathmandu closer to Beijing.

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Nepalese Prime Minister Khadga Prasad (K. P.) Oli’s recent three-day state visit to India showed just how cozy Beijing and Kathmandu have become and how much more India must do if it is to reinvigorate a stalling relationship with its mountainous northern neighbor.

Oli's visit took place as the relationship between India and Nepal skims an all-time low, but despite some low-level pledges of mutual cooperation, the visit failed to result in Oli offering any sign that he intends to desist from a policy of engagement with China that has left New Delhi cold.

In a sign of intent, India rolled out the red carpet, in this case embodied by Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who ditched protocol to meet Oli in person at the Indira Gandhi International Airport.

But it will take more than outward show to heal a rift that emerged in the wake of the devastating earthquake that struck Nepal in 2015, killing almost 9,000 people. At the time, Indian efforts to assist in rescue and recovery operations were accompanied by a media presence that was decried as insensitive and jingoistic by Nepalese, leading to a consequent cooling of bilateral ties.

Credit: Reuters/TPG
Nepal's Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli inspects a guard of honour during his ceremonial reception at the forecourt of India's Rashtrapati Bhavan presidential palace in New Delhi, India, April 7, 2018.

This public relations impasse was followed by lethal protests and a five-month economic blockade of Nepal following the historic September 2015 passage of Nepal's constitution. Exactly who is responsible for stoking the crisis remains unclear, but Oli lodged responsibility firmly at New Delhi's door amid accusations of Indian interference in the framework of the constitution and a perceived failure to account for demands made by the Madheshi people, who have close cultural and historical ties with India.

The fallout was evident in Oli's shift towards fostering engagement with China, encapsulated by his decision to follow up a February 2016 visit to India with a trip to Beijing, a year after which agreements were sealed to work with the Chinese government to carry out major projects under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Oli's re-election as prime minister in 2018, a landslide electoral victory in the 275-seat parliament a following the first parliamentary and provincial elections held under the 2015 constitution, served to heighten Indian concerns over Nepal's hostility.

Indeed, during the campaign, the Left alliance that swept Oli to power, primarily composed of the two communist parties, his own Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) and Pushpa Kamal Dahal's (known as "Prachanda") Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), made its negativity towards India abundantly clear. In fact, in an oblique reference to the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Nepal and India, Prachanda and Oli said that "unequal treaties" would be abrogated, if the Left alliance came to power.

It was in this context that Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj made a surprise visit to Nepal in February 2018 with the aim of conveying the Modi government’s desire to strengthen bilateral ties.

Credit: Reuters/TPG
Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj waves towards the media upon her arrival at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, Nepal Feb. 1, 2018.

However, in an unprecedented development, the hosting of Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi by the Oli government in March took India by surprise. Subsequently, Oli also decided to revive the Budhi Gandaki Hydro Project with China, which had been cancelled by the Nepali Congress government in November 2017, further stoking Indian displeasure.

The US$2.5-billion hydropower project complements commitments by Chinese companies made during the March 2017 Nepal Investment Summit to invest US$8.3 billion in Nepal. And in the same year, the Chinese Defense Minister and State Councilor General Chang Wanquan visited Kathamandu, offering a grant of US$32.3 million to the Nepal Army for the purpose of strengthening its capacity to deal with natural calamities.

In this context of India's increasing fear of losing Nepal to China under the Oli government, the Modi administration wanted to utilize Oli’s visit to arrest a widening gulf between the two countries. Modi announced plans to construct a new electrified rail line, with India’s financial support, that will connect the border city of Raxaul in India with Kathmandu in Nepal. The two prime ministers also took the decision to develop inland waterways for the movement of cargo, within the framework of trade and transit arrangements, providing additional access to the sea for Nepal. While this new initiative would enable cost effective and efficient movement of cargo between the two countries, these measures are seen as an attempt to limit China’s involvement in infrastructure-building activities in Nepal.

However, despite these developments, no agreements were signed between the two countries. Oli made the usual platitudes in his speeches, noting India and Nepal's historic friendship, and the aim of focusing on the future rather than dwelling on the past. But he also made pointed remarks about the need to elevate ties between India and Nepal to new heights commensurate with the realities of the 21st century.

By this I suspect he means that New Delhi should not interfere in Nepal’s intern affairs nor try to dictate the level of engagement between Nepal and China. If India really intends to bring Nepal back into the fold, it must take extra steps to reduce the trust deficit between the two countries.

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Editor: David Green

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