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Going beyond the ceremonial

Given Nepal’s scepticism over renewed engagement with India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the Himalayan nation should focus on the doables

The much discussed issue — the lack of high-level political engagement between India and Nepal — was back in focus with the three-day >official visit of Sushma Swaraj, India’s External Affairs Minister, to Kathmandu. Although the foreign minister’s visit to Nepal during this period every year is almost a calendar event, its most important part was the >revival of the Joint Commission (JC) after 23 years, and preparation for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming visit to the country in early August after 17 years. The visit also demonstrated India’s desire to re-energise India-Nepal relationship in line with the Modi government’s efforts to breathe new life into India’s neighbourhood policy. Besides, it conveyed to the people of Nepal the primacy that the new government attaches to Nepal in its foreign policy.

Although India and Nepal have shared cordial and friendly ties without much tensions, there was a perception in Kathmandu that New Delhi no longer took the Himalayan country seriously. According to many observers in Nepal, this was evident from the one-way, high-level political visits from the Nepalese side during the last decade, which mostly went unreciprocated from the Indian side. Therefore, with the revival of the JC and talk of Mr. Modi’s visit to Nepal, there is a lot of hope in Kathmandu about a possible upswing in bilateral relations.

> Read: A new beginning with Nepal

Most important, Ms Swaraj’s visit took place during a critical phase of political transition in Nepal — when the country is struggling to generate a political consensus to conclude the protracted exercise of drafting a new constitution. The second Constituent Assembly (CA) has so far not been able to address contentious issues like the nature of political system and federalism, like the first CA.

Competing narratives

Against this backdrop, there are mixed reactions in Nepal about India’s role in the constitution writing process. One narrative holds that since India facilitated the peace process in November 2005, it has a moral responsibility to ensure the successful conclusion of the process; India should not keep aloof at this crucial juncture when the differences among various political actors on the two contentious issues of federalism and nature of governance are widening. Some civil society groups believe that India should reuse its influence (as it did in 2005), and act as a ‘negotiator’ to resolve the political deadlock, and take the process forward.

The second narrative is that India continues to interfere in the internal affairs of Nepal and supports the efforts of the status-quoist forces to override the progressive elements, and adopt an antediluvian constitution without a consensus, through a majority. This may lead to unnecessary chaos and confusion and decelerate the process of transition. The advocates of this view also allege that India is doubly guilty of not letting any third country help the Nepalese political forces overcome the present crisis.

Although the first narrative acknowledges India’s efforts in 2005, and wants India to play the role of an honest mediator, the advocates of such a point of view are in a clear minority in Nepal. The inertial view of India as an overpowering bully, conspiring to micro-manage Nepal’s internal politics with the ultimate aim of establishing an acquiescing government in Kathmandu, persists.

Ms Swaraj began her trip by chairing the third JC. She also met President Ram Baran Yadav, Prime Minister Sushil Koirala and the Opposition leaders of Nepal. For the first time after 23 years, the high-level bilateral meeting covered a wide range of issues concerning both the countries. The JC discussed over six dozen bilateral issues and addressed most of them.

According to the joint statement, both the countries agreed to: update the Treaty of Peace and Friendship 1950; promote greater collaboration and cooperation in security related issues; cooperate in the agricultural sector and set up an agriculture university with Indian support; enhance bilateral trade and investment by relaxing the rules of origin requirements; simplify and streamline transit and customs related procedures; eliminate Technical Barriers to Trade and make Sanitary and Phyto Sanitary-related measures less stringent and lift quantitative restrictions on the export of Nepalese products to India; finalise the text of a Power Trade Agreement; work towards an early completion of the construction of the 132 kV Kataiya-Kusaha and 132 kV Raxaul-Parwanipur Transmission Line Projects; relax the requirement of Indian content for the road projects included in the $250 million LoC; and deepen cooperation in the tourism sector by connecting major tourist spots in Nepal and India.

During the meeting, India also agreed to construct an international cricket stadium at Pokhara; continue the Goitre Control programme; provide technical support for early operationalisation of the Bharat-Nepal Maitri Emergency and Trauma Centre, and increase scholarships for Nepalese students for higher studies in India.

> Read: Indo-Nepal relations: rising above the script

Significantly, during her meeting with the Opposition leaders, Ms Swaraj gave the assurance that steps would be taken “to ensure continued discussions at the political level on bilateral issues, while underlining the need for building an atmosphere of trust between the two neighbours.” The Nepalese delegation reiterated its country’s support for India’s permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council and expressed similar views on major international issues affecting the developing countries, and the desire of the Nepalese leadership to work in close coordination with India in the international forum.

Given India’s poor record on the delivery front, there is scepticism in Kathmandu that, although the JC covered a wide gamut of issues, the outcome of the meeting is more ceremonial than real. Most of the pledges made by India in the joint statement are a reiteration of promises made by it over the years. Except for the construction of a stadium in Pokhara and the decision on deepening cooperation on tourism, nothing seems new in the statement.

Significantly, as per media reports, Nepalese officials made it clear during the talks that “there should be a political consensus in Nepal before a bilateral deal could be reached.” The negotiating parties also failed to set a timeline for completing the negotiations for Project Development Agreement and the Power Trade Agreement (PTA).

Trust deficit

Thus, despite the revival of the JC, trust deficit exists. And many issues agreed upon during the meeting would either be delayed, given the illusive consensus among the Nepalese political parties, or might not materialise at all. In fact, a meeting of the top three political parties on July 27 failed to take any decision over PTA, which was expected to be signed during Mr. Modi’s visit to Nepal. Given the lack of consensus among the Nepalese political parties on India’s role in the water and infrastructure >projects in Nepal, New Delhi may find it difficult to translate its promises in the joint statement into reality.

However, there were some positive developments on the Nepalese side. For the first time, perhaps, no controversial news has appeared in the Nepali media about an Indian leader’s visit (so far). There may, thus, be an appetite in Kathmandu to break fresh ground with India, although cynics in Nepal would caution that the anti-India lobby is reserving its venom for Mr. Modi’s visit.

It is important to ask whether India could have done better. The foreign minister could have picked up some doable issues to ensure the goodwill of the Nepalese people as well: for example, issues like declaring special trains for the Nepalese people from Delhi and Bangalore to the India-Nepal border; the exemption of Nepalese students and patients from paying in U.S. dollars during their treatment in Indian hospitals, and educational institutions; setting up India information centres in remote areas; setting up cold storage and grain storage in hill regions and marketing facilities for agro-based products; renovation of airport infrastructure in Nepal, especially the Terai region; vocational training institutes for women; easy transfer of remittance from India to Nepal through banking channels; joint research on the Himalayan eco-system and prevention of river pollution; and speeding up the completion of the Amlekhganj-Raxaul oil pipeline with Indian assistance.

Similarly, on tourism, we could have been more innovative, and proposed the linking of major tourist spots starting from those in northern India to Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet via Nepal — connecting Bodhgaya, Saranath, Kasi Bishwanath, Janakpur, Lumbini, Vindhyabasini & Mankamana in Pokhara, Pashupatinath and Muktinath.

One hopes some of these issues will figure during Mr. Modi’s upcoming visit to Nepal on 3-4 August. Focussing on the doables is a much better option.

(Nihar R. Nayak is associate fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses)

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Printable version | Jun 3, 2020 10:24:50 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/going-beyond-the-ceremonial/article6261449.ece

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