Exactly ten years ago, in November 2006, Nepal’s mainstream parliamentary parties and the country’s rebels, Maoists, signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The pact formally brought an end to the war, paved the way for a republic, and was a logical consequence of a movement that was waged that April against the autocratic monarch.
Through this period, sitting in his cabin in South Block, as External Affairs Minister, was Pranab Mukherjee. In 2009, he was to tell Al Jazeera in an interview that India had played a role in persuading the former Maoist rebels to give up arms and join the political mainstream.
Mukherjee — in his various stints in government from the 70s to earlier in this decade — developed a keen interest in two neighbours in particular, Nepal and Bangladesh. He knows all Nepali politicians well, who make it a point to call on him during visits to Delhi.
And that is why it is truly fitting that as his Presidential terms ends, and as Nepal’s political transition reaches its final lap, Mukherjee goes on a state visit to Kathmandu — the politics of a city he knows so well and has played a part in shaping. The visit marks the fulfilment of a personal desire of the head of state. But like all state visits, the importance of Pranab Mukherjee’s visit goes beyond the personal level. What makes it special though is the way in which this visit has combined multiple objectives.
Mukherjee’s visit was first aimed at restoring the bilateral goodwill that has faced a rupture over the past year. To tide over the trust deficit – which emerged when India advised Nepal’s politicians to be more inclusive in their approach to constitution promulgation, advice which was disregarded – there has been a series of high level exchanges.
PM Prachanda has already visited India twice in the last four months. So has Nepali foreign minister Prakash Sharan Mahat. Former PM K P Oli too visited Delhi this February. And President Bidya Bhandari – who was Mukherjee’s host and had most enthusiastically pushed the visit – will travel to Delhi soon. PM Narendra Modi had visited Kathmandu twice in 2014.
But the last head of the state visit from India was way back in May 1998, when President K R Narayanan came to Kathmandu. In fact, this seems to be a gap in Nepal’s diplomatic calendar, for the last head of state to visit from anywhere was the Mongolian President back in 2001. Mukherjee’s visit addresses this 18-year anomaly from the Indian side. He used the visit to emphasise the special relationship between Nepal and India, and India’s own commitment to Nepal’s stability, development and prosperity. Speaking at the civic reception hosted by the Kathmandu Municipal city, the President said Kathmandu is not only the political capital of Nepal, but also a spiritual centre for the people in our region. His visit to Nepal was also a kind of pilgrimage – it was a mission of friendship to foster ever greater understanding and cooperation between India and Nepal. There are no two sovereign nations in the world like India and Nepal, sharing a common culture and having an open border between them. The Government and people of India are committed to further strengthening and deepening this relationship.
Also, there is an unstated geopolitical subtext to the timing of the visit. Over the past year, China’s engagement in Nepali politics has grown. It was backing the former PM K P Oli even as India was keen to see his exit for his unwillingness to address constitutional issues and for propagating ultra-nationalism with an anti-India tilt. The Chinese President was tentatively expected to visit Kathmandu on his way to BRICS in October.
But Delhi encouraged Oli’s ouster back in July-August; the Chinese tried to save him unsuccessfully and suddenly found themselves on the defensive; and they did not go ahead with Xi Jinping’s visit. India was quick to ensure that the moment was not lost — and Delhi could use it its own President to send a message of its own commitment to Nepal.
It is rare for the President to visit three cities in a country in a short visit. But Mukherjee did just that. Beyond Kathmandu, he flied to the southern Tarai town of Janakpur. Janakpur is where, according to legend, Lord Ram married Sita.
Prime Minister Modi himself was keen to visit the town two years ago — but a less than cooperative Nepal government did not reciprocate the enthusiasm. Mukherjee visited the Janaki temple and attended a civic reception. If the sources are to be believed the significance of Janakpur visit is multi-fold. One, it emphasises the shared cultural and civilisational linkages between the two countries.
Two, it is also the de facto capital of the Tarai-Madhes region – the centre of a movement for greater rights and representation. India has urged Nepali political actors to take all sections of society on board in the constitution. The visit is a reminder of the importance India places on the Tarai in Nepal.
Three, Janakpur is also at the southern border and the visit highlighted the centrality of cross-border relations, and the special role of the Tarai in India-Nepal ties. India sees its security as tied inextricably with the situation in this region because of an open border with heartland states of Bihar and UP.
The President said the key to economic development of Janakpur lies in the promotion of the tourism sector. Recently, Janakpur and Ayodhya reinforced their ancient ties by signing a twin city agreement. The development of the Ramayana tourism circuit, with better facilities for millions of pilgrims, will not only generate employment opportunities but also strengthen the story of our common heritage. Janakpur is close to India — both spiritually and geographically. It is essential that we pay adequate attention to the development of border infrastructure and connectivity to facilitate movement of people.
But India’s interest in Nepal goes beyond the Tarai. And to emphasise this, Mukherjee flew straight to the western, picturesque valley of Pokhara, with the Annapurna range in the backdrop. Here, he spent time with former Indian army personnel.
As Modi said during his August 2014 visit, there is no war India has fought where Nepal has not shed its blood. This is indeed a unique element of the relationship. In India’s Gurkha regiments, young men from Nepal are proud soldiers, hailed for their commitment and bravery. It is a mutually beneficial relationship–for the Indian Army then takes good care of its serving men and pensioners. Speaking with ex-servicemen, the President said it is a matter of pride that the brave Gurkhas have been serving in India since the last 200 years with exemplary courage and sincerity. They have earned a name for themselves in the Indian Army. Today 32,000 Gurkha soldiers are serving in the Indian Army and around 1 Lakh, 26 thousand ex-servicemen and their dependents are drawing pension in Nepal.
President Mukherjee’s visit was to smoothen Nepal-India relations, which had touched the lowest level in recent times. Since he had visited Nepal earlier as India’s External Affairs Minister and had been the trouble-shooter of the Congress party, it was clear that New Delhi had chosen the right person having acumen, experience and long association with Nepalese leaders to untie the Gordian knot of diplomatic confusion amidst aggressive Chinese financial involvement in Nepal. Strategically, he was there when the Nepalese government is planning to table the crucial amendment bill to the constitution to meet the demands of Madhesi, Tharu and Janajati groups.
It requires a two-third majority to pass the amendment bill that the government lacks. However, the agitating parties want the bill to be introduced soon as it has already exceeded the time limit agreed upon previously. The visit is being viewed in Nepal from different angles. To some, it is ill-timed as it seems like interference in the amendment process as the parties in power and the main opposition party, the CPN-UML, are at daggers drawn.
The section led by the UML is against the amendment; it does not favour any consideration to the Madhesi demands fearing they may lead to division of the country and holds India responsible. The other section appreciates his visit, as it will facilitate negotiations in favour of the agitating parties, since he is well known to the political leaders who may lend their ears to his sound counsel. However, it is also believed that even if he did not pressurise the government, his presence in Kathmandu itself was a message from New Delhi.
Also, President Mukherjee’s visit to Nepal has been a ‘mission of friendship’ and reflects the priority that India attaches to further strengthening its unique relationship with Nepal. Both countries’ destinies are inter-linked and there is recognition on both sides of the need to advance common prosperity. India is determined to support Nepal in its pursuit of peace, stability and development. During the visit both sides agreed that focus should now shift to implementation of ongoing bilateral development and connectivity projects as well as projects for post-earthquake reconstruction of Nepal.
President Mukherjee’s visit has provided new dynamism to both country’s common cooperative endeavours. Building on shared strength of geography, history and culture, India-Nepal relations are poised to ascend to new heights in the coming years for the mutual benefit of peoples of both countries.
(Uday India Bureau)