OPINION

Restoring goodwill in India-Nepal ties

“Many opinion-makers in Kathmandu were sympathetic to Madhesi demands; however, the overt identification of Indian support ended up isolating the Madhesis politically.” File photo shows Madhesi protesters clashing with Nepalese policemen in Birgunj, a town on the India-Nepal border.— Photo: AP  

Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli’s visit this week is an opportunity to reclaim the bilateral relationship from the drift and acrimony of recent months

This week, Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli will undertake his first official visit to India. While both sides are keeping expectations low, his visit offers a welcome opportunity to have a frank chai pe charcha and clear the air about the recent differences which had led to some harsh exchanges. Briefing the Nepali Parliament, Mr. Oli said his visit “aims at removing recent differences between the two countries and strengthening the historic bilateral ties”. Given the background, he emphasised he would further Nepal’s relations with India based on “principles of equality, mutual respect and benefit”. He also announced that before embarking for India on February 19, a high-level political committee will be set up to review the provincial boundaries in a three-month time frame. This was intended as much for the agitating Madhesi groups as for Delhi.

Mr. Oli is no stranger to India. During his long political career, he has built good relationships with a number of Indian political leaders. In ideological terms, he has moved far from his early days as a Naxalite leader during the 1970s when he was in prison for nearly 14 years. Following the advent of multi-party democracy in Nepal in 1990, he emerged as one of the young leaders of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist). During his stints as Home Minister and later as Foreign Minister, he enjoyed a reputation of being both decisive and pragmatic.

Recent misunderstandings

Mr. Oli’s differences with India arose in the run-up to his election as Prime Minister. Following the 2013 elections, UML had supported Nepali Congress (NC) in its bid for the post of the Prime Minister on the understanding that after the new Constitution was promulgated, NC would support his claim to the post. Neither the UML nor he personally was receptive to Madhesi demands on ‘federalism’ and ‘proportional representation’. Consequently, he reacted negatively to Indian suggestions that the new Constitution take on board Madhesi reservations to create a broad consensus, rather than be pushed through by majority in an increasingly polarised environment.

NC Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, who passed away this month, wanted to introduce certain changes which could have addressed Madhesi demands but Mr. Oli was a man in a hurry and saw this as a delaying tactic. He wanted NC to deliver on the original understanding. Finally Koirala resigned as Prime Minister but the NC, instead of supporting Mr. Oli’s candidature, renominated Koirala to the post. People close to Mr. Oli maintain that Koirala’s candidature was backed by India. Mr. Oli built alliances with the Maoists and other parties by generous promises which helped him defeat Koirala, thus becoming Nepal’s 38th Prime Minister last October.

Meanwhile, the continuing Madhesi agitation had claimed more than 50 lives and brought life in the Terai to a complete standstill. Mr. Oli blamed India for supporting the Madhesis by imposing an ‘unofficial blockade’ even as India urged him to resolve political issues so that stability and security could be restored and normal movement of goods resumed. For the first time, India and Nepal traded harsh words, in Geneva, in a multilateral forum. Mr. Oli used the plank of Nepali nationalism to bolster his coalition and blamed India for his troubles. Like others before him, he also flaunted the China card by sending delegations to China to develop alternative supply routes across the Tibetan border, the limitations of which soon became apparent.

Losing control

In hindsight, it is evident that nobody had expected the Madhesi agitation to last this long, consequently, nobody had prepared an exit option. What began as a protest took on the character of a movement and even the Madhesi Morcha leaders were unsure how to find a respectable compromise. New voices emerged, including some who raised the banner of an independent Madhes. Prolonged shutdown of businesses and schools in the Terai increased the hardship for the local population.

Mr. Oli had earlier turned down the NC’s proposals for amending the Constitution and after stoking anti-Indian rhetoric, he could hardly be seen seeking compromise under Indian influence. Instead of reaching out to the Madhesis by visiting the Terai where casualties had occurred, he raised the banner of Nepali nationalism and as a sign of his unhappiness with India, suggested that his first foreign visit would be to China, in a departure from tradition. Missing in this was the realisation that Nepal is a highly diverse society with over a hundred different ethnicities and as the Prime Minister, he needed to begin acting as a unifying figure.

Whenever Nepal’s domestic politics gets polarised, India gets blamed for interfering in Nepal’s internal affairs and anti-Indianism rises. Indian suggestions that outstanding issues be resolved on the basis of consultation and dialogue did not go down well as the Madhesi agitation intensified. A point of view that a pro-Madhesi stance would help the BJP in the Bihar Assembly elections gained currency. Mixed signalling added to misgivings. The enormous amount of goodwill generated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s maiden visit to Nepal in August 2014 and India’s generous support following the devastating earthquake in April 2015 eroded rapidly, raising questions about the ‘neighbourhood first’ foreign policy. Many opinion-makers in Kathmandu were sympathetic to Madhesi demands which were also shared by Janjatis and Tharus; however, the overt identification of Indian support ended up isolating the Madhesis politically.

Eventually, pragmatism prevailed. Mr. Oli realised that without some amendments to the Constitution, Madhesi demands could not be addressed. He took India into confidence, sending his Foreign Minister twice to Delhi to share the proposed amendments. Even before the amendments were adopted, the Indian authorities responded positively and some alternative routes and crossing points were used to facilitate movement of trucks into Nepal. The agitating Madhesi Morcha leadership began to realise that the agitation had run its course and could not be sustained indefinitely; a compromise was therefore necessary.

Time to turn a new page

Ideologically too, Mr. Oli is the one UML leader who has always been sceptical of the Maoist agenda though he had to do a deal with them when the NC backtracked on its earlier understanding. He was aware that Prachanda had already started hinting that a more acceptable leader was needed to deal with the political instability and for improving relations with India. After the death of Sushil Koirala, the NC is pre-occupied with its convention, scheduled for early March, to elect a new President and other office-bearers. The competition seems to be between former Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and NC Vice President Ram Chandra Poudel. Mr. Oli enjoys good relations with both and would do well to bring the NC on board eventually to increase his support base and form a national unity government.

Domestically, Prime Minister Oli’s challenge now is to get the post-earthquake reconstruction activity going. After a highly successful international conference last June where a collective pledge of $4.4 billion was made, delivery has stalled. Before the earthquake, Nepal’s economy was expected to grow at 4 per cent; after the destruction caused by the quake, the political instability and the shutdown in the Terai, growth estimates for the current year are close to zero.

India had pledged $1 billion of reconstruction aid, of which 40 per cent was grant and the balance in the form of soft loans. This was in addition to the $1 billion assistance announced during Mr. Modi’s visit, bringing India’s total commitment to $2 billion over the next five years. During the forthcoming visit, the modalities for identifying projects and efficient disbursements need to be worked out. Mr. Oli is also expected to visit Bhuj, which is held up as an example of efficient post-quake reconstruction. The two Project Development Agreements for hydropower generation signed by GMR (for Upper Karnali) and SJVN (for Arun III) during the last eighteen months will add 1800 MW to Nepal’s current generation of 800 MW and need to be fast-tracked.

Mr. Oli’s visit provides an opportunity to close the chapter on the rather unproductive politics of recent months and revive the ‘neighbourhood first’ policy that Mr. Modi had presented in 2014, of a friendly and caring India, sensitive to Nepal’s concerns, and generous in seeking mutually beneficial partnerships.

(Rakesh Sood, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation till May 2014, is a former Ambassador to Nepal.)

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