Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | India-Nepal ties | The HITs and misses of PM Prachanda’s visit

India-Nepal ties | The HITs and misses of PM Prachanda’s visit

In this episode of Worldview, we discuss the visit of Nepal Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ to Delhi and why was it significant

June 02, 2023 10:01 pm | Updated 10:01 pm IST

India and Nepal announce a slew of projects with the HIT formula of Highways, I-ways and Trans-ways during PM Prachanda’s first official visit in this tenure, but do big brother dynamics, border sensitivities and suspicions over China still stall plans to power ties to Himalayan Heights?

1. This was Prachanda’s 4th visit as Prime Minister of Nepal, and this his third tenure as PM of Nepal- with short tenures in the past from 2008-2009 and 2016-2017 

2. Apart from a Treaty of Transit, the two sides launched five projects and signed six MoUs for projects

3. As a leader of the Maoist movement in Nepal, and of the Communist Party, Prachanda was originally seen as close to China- in 2008, he broke with tradition and made his first trip abroad to Beijing. However, on this visit he came to New Delhi on his first visit abroad. 

India and Nepal’s ties have always been unique for a number of reasons: 

1. For land-locked Nepal, India, that joins Nepal on three sides has always seen social, religious and community exchanges, as well as inter-marriages, including amongst the erstwhile royal families on both sides of the border. India is more than 20 times Nepal’s size, yet no country including India has attempted to occupy Nepal, along a largely peaceful border of 1770 kms

2. India and Nepal have an open boundary, given each other’s citizens near national treatment- with Nepalis allowed to work in India and Indian rupees freely used in Nepal. They also honour each other’s Army Chiefs and have a special military relationship 

3. India is Nepal’s largest trade partner, highest source of FDI and provides transit for almost entire third country trade of Nepal and almost 100% of petroleum supplies, and third highest source of inward remittances after Saudi Arabia and Malaysia 

Where do the fault-lines lie- and what were some of the issues that didn’t get discussed during the visit? 

1.     India and Nepal have a boundary issue- particularly over the areas of Kalapani and Susta. Despite an agreement in 2014 to resolve these, officials have barely met on the issue. In 2019 India published a new map showing the contours of Jammu and Kashmir which upset Nepal as it reasserted its claims on these areas, Nepal hit back in 2020 by passing its own map and a constitutional amendment placing that map in the national symbol, currency and official communication. PM Modi said the boundary issue would be resolved in the spirit of cooperation, but it didn’t make headway on this visit. Another controversy has arisen after the inauguration of the new parliament this week, that includes a mural of India including Lumbini- while former Nepal PMs Bhattarai and Oli raised the issue domestically, PM Prachanda did not 

2.     Nepal has long demanded a revision of the 1950 Friendship treaty between India and Nepal, which it sees as an unequal treaty- but despite many promises, India has so far not moved towards talks on this, and in particular the acceptance of an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) report that suggests changes to the treaty, and has languished for a decade. 

3.     In recent years, since Nepal signed an 8-point infrastructure agreement with China and joined the Belt and Road Initiative in 2019 with a number of Chinese projects, and an increased presence of China in its political sphere. India has countered these with a slew of its own projects, and completing existing plans. The government has also put restrictions on power purchasing from hydropower projects built or financed by Chinese companies. And in contrast to Beijing’s role in trying to unite the two Communist factions of Prachanda and Oli in 2022, which failed, India has kept a lower and more inclusive profile in Nepali politics. However, the lasting effects of Indian border trade blockade in 2015 over the Modi government’s opposition to Nepal’s new constitution still rankles, especially amongst the Nepali establishment. 

4.     While the two sides have discussed rail and road connectivity, Nepal has been upset because of a lack of air connectivity- it wants India to allow air access through Janakpur, Bhairahawa, Nepalgunj and Mahendranagar so as to facilitate international flights, particularly those coming from western Nepal, to the two new international airports in Bhairahawa and Pokhara- both of which were built by Chinese companies, and are unviable without Indian permission

I spoke to Nepali author, business consultant and columnist Sujeev Shakya about the importance of PM Prachanda’s visit at this time. 

 1. How important is this visit? How have the slew of projects announced transit treaty for power and inland waterways announced by PM’s Modi and Prachanda been received in Kathmandu?

whenever a prime minister goes to India, or even when the things went to India, you sort of want to get the optics, right. As I’ve been writing, you want things to seem that you have achieved. But what is important is not announcement because we keep having these announcements. But there is that sense of mistrust, there’s a sense of doubt. So well, whether these things would actually translate into action. And whether something tangible is going to come out there is still a lot of apprehension. But definitely, from what we expected, what happened during this trip and what has emerged, I think we can say that it’s, it’s better than what we will ever happen.

2. PM Modi said borders should not be barriers... How much are border sensitivities, incl this latest row over the Parliament mural in Delhi, seen as a block to relations? 

It is to a large extent, because I think if we look at from the both the sides, whether hanging this new map, the account of how to map in the parliament, or the you know, sort of having that point that map out of Nepal, I think maps and boundaries across South Asia become a tool for political messaging. So it is taken pretty seriously. Because I think, especially in the days of social media, it does attract more eyeballs and more attention than before. But having said that, it is important also to resolve these issues, which formerly have been always have the set of opinion to say that, you know, boundary issues exist with countries practically in every country in the world. So how do you resolve it in an amicable way. And we also have some good precedents. So the resolution of the boundary between Bangladesh in India, that is being resolved, we look at discussions that are going on on formal platforms between resolution of boundary between Bhutan and China. So So I think we have to figure out ways of formal mechanisms to resolve these boundary issues, rather than making it political rhetoric. And I think in that sense, I think Japan has also failed over the years of not taking this as a formal issue, but rather continuously leveraged as a political tool. And I think that’s, that’s going to be very important. And any relationship if we can resolve some of these larger issues around boundary, it definitely acts as a mechanism to build trust for a lot of activity, the business investment, people, two people.

3. The two sides have weathered some fairly big storms in the past decade.. Including the blockade of 2015, and then the maps and constitutional amendments in 2020. Tell us what is really needed for India and Nepal to sidestep these landmines and make a generational shift in ties?

Yes, I think if we look at the Nepali leadership, it is of a certain age, who have their own sort of lives in the past. And if you look at India, most of Nepal specialists are people who you know, have people who have experience from Nepal, so not necessarily the newer generation. So there is a new India that is emerging as I’ve been writing, it’s got investments, it’s attracting Global Investments, it’s attracting global talents. It has, you know, it’s trying to assert itself as a leader of the global south. So how does Nepal understand that? At the same time, in India, people need to look at a Nepal when the police are now in 180 countries, globally mobile, traveling across the world, with the demographics of 70%, under 40. So it’s so so how do we build that? And I think that’s one the other is that the discourse around India, Nepal, has always been with the two capitals. And that has been my biggest issue. The discourse has to come down now it’s a federated in about. So how does one detail our work with Bihar? Or how does the province one pushing works with pinball? Or how does karma only work with Rob and up those are newer relationships, we have to carve out where discussions are happening between five and seven, Kalka, B, ratanda and Silivri. I know it’s happening between so Kaitlan similar, or you know, circuit. So, those are new ways in which we have to perceive these relationships. And, and also to say that there is a completely shift in how people perceive what is neighborhood, how people perceive your tourism destination. So if you look at young Indians, who would want to go to Switzerland go to Thailand, they don’t want to come to Japan like earlier, and young Nepalese, the same thing, they are not wanting to go to Delhi, or they want to go to another place. So so so how do we introduce the two countries and and both the countries have gone through tremendous transformations in the past few decades, especially Nepal as a Federal Democratic Republic to elections on a new set of people in the parliament, a new set of voices immersion in politics. So I think it’s just more people to people interactions, that’s where I feel is should be the emphasis, the politics will sort of manage itself, if there’s the foundations of b2b relationships are strong, because we should not forget that in the 50s 60s, the politics was equally complicated, between India, Nepal, but then the people to people relationship, the foundations are very strong, that helps the relationships to continue in a certain manner. And that’s that those are the lessons perhaps we need to continuously learn.

4. How much is China a factor in India Nepal ties? Chinas reputation off late seems to have dimmed a bit in Nepal, esp after it was seen as interfering in politics... Is that to India’s benefit?

Like China is asserting itself not only in Nepal, but throughout the world. It is. It’s an investor and its own ways of dealing with soft power. It has more to risk going into different countries. So it’s an again, it’s a new China, we need to recognize with a leader who has tremendous mandate, and is going to stay for a longer period of time has vision of articulating China’s leadership in the world in 2050. So one is we need to understand who’s this new chapter. But especially on level one, there has been interferences, but China has also realized like other countries that Nepal has never been very sort of welcoming to foreign investors. So a Chinese investor faces the same issue as a US investor or an Indian investor. And and China, China is investor per se, you know, their geopolitics is based on investment, business trade. And so they have been very disappointed. So we have had, if you look at all the agreements, if you look at sort of nine agreements that were assigned, the projects under PRI, Nepal has not moved much like the path has not moved much on the Indian project. So as far as China, I see is that as long as the Tibet issue does not flare up, they are not too bothered. They feel India is closer to Nepal to monitor on a day to day basis. And India has larger issues state as the Chinese say Beijing is too far away from Kathmandu. So as long as the Tibet issue is, you know, does not become a big thing and does not become an irritant. And then China does not want to go beyond they have tried during the MCC part. They have tried trying to United Left parties but they have seen that it’s very difficult to work with Nepali pollution because they don’t keep their word, as they say, and they find it very difficult to engage.

 WV Take: 

While tradition, religion, cross-border marriages powered India-Nepal ties of the past, today’s relationship must be powered by trade, infrastructure, power and energy agreements as well as working together to built Nepal’s capacities in IT R&D and the future. Rather than simply blocking engagement with Chinese projects in Nepal, India can find more inclusive ways to bring about a new generational change in one of its closest relationship- Talks on revising the 1950 treaty with Nepal, in a manner India was able to do with Bhutan in 2008, would be a first step in showing that commitment. 

WV Reading Recommendations: 

1.     Kathmandu Dilemma: Resetting India-Nepal Ties – this is one of the best and most comprehensive modern look at ties by former Ambassador to Nepal Ranjit Rae 

2.     3 books by Sujeev Shakya: Unleashing The Vajra: Nepal’s Journey between India and China By Sujeev Shakya 

3.     Unleashing Nepal-  Past, Present and Future of the Economy by  Sujeev Shakya 

 4.     And The Pandemic Years: Articles from ‘The Other View’ Column in The Kathmandu Post by Sujeev Shakya 

5.     The Great Game in the Buddhist Himalayas: India and China’s Quest for Strategic Dominance by Phunchok Stobdan 

6.     All Roads Lead North: Nepal’s Turn to China by Amish Raj Mulmi 

7.     Coping with China-India Rivalry- South Asian Dilemmas C Raja Mohan and Hernaikh Shaikh. Chapters on Nepal by Pramod Jaiswal and S.D Muni 

8.     India Nepal Relation Then and Now by Dr. Krishna Kumari- looks at the need for revision of the 1950 treaty and other irritants in the relationship 

9.     India and Nepal: A Changing Relationship – a book from the past- 1992 by SD Muni  

10.  Lost in Transition: Rebuilding Nepal from the Maoist mayhem and mega earthquake by former diplomat Kul Chandra Gautam 

11.  Hisila: From Revolutionary to First Lady by Hisila Yami one of only two women in the Maoist politburo who married Baburam Bhattari 

12.  Maoism in India and Nepal by Ranjit Bhushan has some profiles of Prachanda, Bhattaria and Oli 

13.  Nepal Nexus, The: An Inside Account of the Maoists, the Durbar and New Delhi by Sudheer Sharma 

14.  Blood Against the Snows: The Tragic Story of Nepal’s Royal Dynasty Hardcover – 6 May 2002 by Jonathan Gregson 

15.  Kingdoms Beyond the Clouds: Journeys in Search of the Himalayan Paperback – 8 June 2001 by Jonathan Gregson 

Script and Presentation: Suhasini Haidar

Production: Gayatri Menon and Reenu Cyriac

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