Indo-Nepal relations: rising above the script

Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Kathmandu presents an opportunity for India to clarify misgivings and re-state the country’s best intentions towards its neighbour

Published - July 25, 2014 12:59 am IST

MAKING OLD TIES NEW: Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Nepal will lay the ground for Narendra Modi’s visit to the country soon. Picture shows Nepal Prime Minister Sushil Koirala with Mr. Modi in New Delhi. Photo: Ramesh Sharma

MAKING OLD TIES NEW: Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Nepal will lay the ground for Narendra Modi’s visit to the country soon. Picture shows Nepal Prime Minister Sushil Koirala with Mr. Modi in New Delhi. Photo: Ramesh Sharma

Even before Narendra Modi became India’s Prime Minister, there was both excitement and suspicion in Nepal. Mr. Modi’s stunning victory in the Lok Sabha election has only added to the emotions. Besides those Nepalis who would like to see Nepal revert to Hindu rasthra (but not necessarily a Hindu kingdom) as well as the likes of Kamal Thapa and his pro-Hindu and pro-monarchy Rastriya Prajatantra Party (Nepal), leaders of other political parties in Nepal see Mr. Modi’s ascension as auguring well for their country. They have cited “clarity in his approach” and “decisiveness in his action” as reasons for their buoyancy.

A more focussed engagement Before Mr. Modi’s swearing-in ceremony, this scribe had reached out to five different leaders — from the Nepali Congress, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum, Nepal and the RPP (Nepal) — for their opinion on India’s Prime Minister-elect. All five ruled out any fundamental shift but expected a more focussed Indian engagement. As expected, they varied in their assessment of the what and how of that “focussed engagement.”

Foreign policies do not change overnight with a change of guard in government, unless some fundamentals have changed dramatically. India-Nepal bilateral ties have remained the same except for a few sharp turns after the 12-point agreement between the seven parliamentary parties and the underground Maoists in November, 2005 in New Delhi and the immediate period after the Maoist party Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal a.k.a. Prachanda became Prime Minister in 2008.

It is in this backdrop that India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is visiting Nepal for three days starting today. However, discussions in Nepal before her visit have not been pleasing at all. By design or accident, the spotlight once again is on India’s “intentions” toward the smaller neighbour which is so dependent on India for trade, fuel and, grudgingly, political refereeing. The last one mentioned has another name in Nepal: meddling in Nepal’s internal affairs.

Before the leaked draft on power sector cooperation between the two neighbours was sent by India (this dominated the media space so much that the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu had to issue a clarification), the discussion in Kathmandu was dominated by the real and imagined role of officials from the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) in Nepal’s internal affairs, thanks to contents of a few books that purportedly contain “insider” information on the Maoist insurgency in Nepal, India’s and RAW’s roles in it, and subsequent negotiations and momentous changes in Nepal.

Assuaging fears This is obviously not an ideal climate for Ms Swaraj’s visit. But it presents an opportunity for her to clarify certain misgivings and re-state India’s best intentions for Nepal. Coming from a political leader, rather than from intelligence or Embassy officials, her clarification would go a long way in assuaging the fears of Nepalis regarding India’s moves. Of course, she cannot expect to win over the permanent India-baiters who have made careers out of suspecting India’s role in Nepal. But the External Affairs Minister must know that even the moderates and realists in Nepal have been feeling uncomfortable about India’s interventions in Nepal’s politics over the last several years.

The impression that India is trying to “micro-manage” Nepal’s affairs has persisted and it won’t go away with a few press statements from Lainchaur in Kathmandu or South Block in New Delhi. Misreading of the UCPN (Maoist)’s moves and intentions — its RAW handlers and some of the MEA officials would be loathe to admit this — should be right on top of the list that needs reassessment.

Officially, the External Affairs Minister’s visit is part of the Nepal-India Joint Commission, which is headed by the Foreign Ministers of the two countries. That the meeting of the Commission, whose aim is to explore and promote mutually beneficial engagement, is being held after more than two decades of its first meet is in itself a positive development. Ms Swaraj’s visit, it is said, will also lay the ground for Mr. Modi’s much-anticipated visit to the Himalayan country, the first bilateral visit by an Indian Prime Minister since I.K. Gujral visited Nepal in 1997.

Ms. Swaraj may or may not sign a few expected pacts that further aim to cement the economic ties of the two neighbours, but if she succeeds in allaying fears about India’s role and intentions, she will have accomplished a great deal. That India respects Nepal’s sovereignty is the absolute minimum of bilateral relations, and its convincing demonstration of the least common denominator of the upcoming visit. This would lead to meaningful cooperation in energy and security sectors — two areas of huge interest to India when it comes to Nepal.

However, for this to happen, Ms Swaraj has to rise above the current script and narrative that has intelligence written all over it. A political ownership is the need of the hour and Ms Swaraj has an excellent opportunity to achieve that. The question is: will she?


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