Friends in Need Partners in Progress
India-Nepal relations have witnessed peaceful, turbulent, friendly and warm phases across historical timelines. Trust surplus and trust deficit have found many manifestations in their relations in the recent past as well. The trend, in fact, continues to this day. The current 6-day visit of Nepalese Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli to India from 19 to 24 February 2016 can be viewed and gauged on similar lines. However, only time will decide the fate of this visit but one thing that once again came out of the visit was the mutual focus on becoming friends in need and partners in progress. Oli’s visit, thus, represents an important moment for both countries to set the diplomatic ill-will that emerged over the past several months behind them and chart a new path forward.
Recent Turmoil and Thaw in Relations
Describing the acrimony between India and Nepal in the last five months as “misunderstandings”, visiting Prime Minister of Nepal K P Sharma Oli said his main mission behind the bilateral visit to India was to “clear the misunderstanding” and take ties between the two countries to the same level as in 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi had visited Nepal. After the bilateral talks with Modi, Oli said, “The misunderstanding that persisted in the last few months is no longer there. I believe our relationship will greatly benefit from our discussions. It is high time to look at India-Nepal relations with a forward-looking approach in the interest of the two countries and their people”. It must be learnt that the long acrimony between India and Nepal over the newly promulgated constitution in Nepal had led to massive disruption of essential supplies to the Himalayan nation. The Constitution was perceived as non-inclusive of ethnic Madhesi and Tharu groups. Protests broke out among the groups, which live primarily in Nepal’s southern plains and have close cultural and linguistic ties across the border with India.
The Indian government largely sympathised with the protesters’ concerns that the country’s new constitution disenfranchised them through its provisions for proportional representation and its handling of the delimitation of federal constituencies. Historically, Madhesis have had cultural and family links across the border in India. The constitution failed to address Madhesi aspirations in terms of federalism, electoral representation and citizenship, leading to the community enforcing a five-month-long blockade along the India-Nepal border. As a result of the instability in Nepal, Indian trucks carrying critical supplies to Nepal, including fuel, food, and medicine, among other goods, refused to cross the border because of the growing concern for their own safety. The Nepali government, however, alleged that the Indian government had encouraged the blockade to apply leverage on Kathmandu to pursue constitutional reform. But what must not be forgotten that some border points still saw the movement, though not in large numbers.
However, backchannel talks between Kathmandu, New Delhi and various Nepali stakeholders appear to be yielding results. Last month Nepal’s parliament passed the first round of constitution amendments that will enhance Madhesi representation in government bodies on the basis of proportional inclusion and make population the main criteria for drawing up electoral constituencies. Although the Madhesis have described the amendments as incomplete, just days before Oli’s visit they lifted the crippling blockade that saw essential supplies to Nepal dwindle.
Nepal’s Double Game and India’s Reply
Oli’s China card against New Delhi during the Madhesi agitation already came as a cropper as trade and oil supplies through China can never be a practical proposition. Sushma Swaraj, External Affairs Minister of India, added that since most of the demands raised by the agitating Madhesi parties had
already been addressed through the constitutional amendment, remaining issues would also be resolved through dialogue among the stakeholders. She said India was Nepal’s elder brother, not a big brother. According to her, ‘big brother’ has a bullying attitude but India was caring and kind towards Nepal.
Agreements during the Visit
India-Nepal relationship is not man-made but entirely natural and civilisational. It is in this spirit that during Oli’s visit, the two sides signed nine agreements, ranging from infrastructure to rail and road transit. One such agreement was an MoU on the utilisation of $250 million grant assistance, part of India’s assistance package for the post-earthquake reconstruction in Nepal. This amount is part of the $1 billion package India announced at last year’s donor conference for reconstruction of quake-hit Nepal. Another agreement signed on February 20 is an MoU on strengthening road infrastructure in the Terai region of Nepal, which lays out a new modality for the construction of 518 kilometres of roads in five packages in that region. This is in keeping with India’s deep focus with the Terai region of Nepal which borders India. Letters of exchange on both road transit routes and rail transport have also been concluded. The road transit was transit between Nepal and Bangladesh through the Kakarbhitta-Banglabandha corridor, and the operationalisation of Visakhapatnam port; the rail transport was also to and from Visakhapatnam, as well as a rail transit facility through Singabad for Nepal’s trade with and through Bangladesh. Nepal has also promised that it will further the Bangladesh, Bhutan, Indian, Nepal (BBIN) project of sub-regional connectivity. This is laden with a lot of strategic significance given the China and Pakistan factors.
The ongoing visit of Nepal’s Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli may not have resolved all of New Delhi’s current differences with Kathmandu. The persisting differences can be gauged from the description of the Nepalese constitution differently. While Oli described Nepal’s constitution as “historic”, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called it a “major achievement”, but cautioned that its ultimate success will hinge on “consensus and dialogue”. Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar also reiterated that “though the tone and tenor of the visit was most forward-looking, India expects that assurances given about addressing grievances within Nepal, which if left unaddressed, can detract from the stability of Nepal and that those assurances would be carried out”. But it can’t be denied that the visit has done enough to defuse the recent crisis in bilateral relations. The message that India will hope to send out–especially to China–is that things are hunky-dory and at the end of the day, both countries are still good friends. The two countries must not forget the dictum of former Indian Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee that “you can choose your friends but not your neighbours”. Finally, persistent engagement is always better than diplomatic petulance. Sahmati and samvad must be followed in letter and spirit.
By Rajeev Kumar