Restoring goodwill with Kathmandu

February 25, 2016 01:40 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:34 pm IST

Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Oli’s just-concluded > six-day visit to India has come at an important juncture. The visit came after months of turmoil in the Madhes, or plains, region of Nepal following protests demanding a more federal framework in the new Constitution. India had tacitly backed the agitations, which resulted in a virtual >blockade and a shortage of essential supplies in Nepal . After a prolonged period of vacillation, Mr. Oli committed to amendments in the Constitution that would satisfy some of the demands made by the > Madhesis . This yielded an easing of the blockade after the protestors called off their stir. The net result of the Indian hand in the unrest, and of New Delhi’s perceived partisanship, had been a resurgence of jingoism in Kathmandu. It was also damaging for India, as the stand-off drained the goodwill gained from its commitment to supporting Nepal’s reconstruction after the devastating > earthquake in 2015 . The two countries clearly needed to recalibrate their positions, and this is a good start. Nepal has to maintain cordial relations with India; its economic dependence, especially as a landlocked state, is well understood and was, in fact, reinforced during the economic blockade. India too needs a friendly Nepal, whose geopolitical importance due to the open border between the two countries cannot be overstated. It is also in India’s interest that there be political stability in Nepal, to prevent the spillover effect any turmoil can have for the bordering States of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and to secure the republican consensus needed to pull millions of Nepalis out of poverty.

'To that extent, Prime Minister Oli’s visit has helped reset some priorities. The emphasis by both sides was on taking forward the reconstruction assistance that India has promised. A memorandum of understanding in this regard was signed. Other MoUs covered economic aid for road projects, enhancing power transmission, and easing travel and transit of goods. As regards the question of the Constitution, the Indian government had not budged much from its earlier position on the need for a consensus through dialogue with the dissenting Madhesis to take their concerns on federalism on board. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi did acknowledge that the conclusion of the Constitution-writing process is an “important achievement”. The onus is now on Mr. Oli, his Cabinet and his party, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist). They could still project the halt in the economic embargo and return to normalcy in the Madhes as a sign of victory and resist any further concessions towards a truly federal Nepal. But that would only amount to further brinkmanship, which could prove detrimental again in the longer run. New Delhi too should dwell on the lessons from the recent deterioration in ties and on the need for a calibrated position that supports inclusive democracy in Nepal yet does not amount to interference. Mr. Oli’s visit has demonstrated the importance of high-level ownership of bilateral engagement to return relations to a mutually beneficial equilibrium.

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