Nepal and India have taken a tentative step forward in normalising their relations. Nepal’s new Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli made it a point to make New Delhi the destination for his first visit abroad. For its part, India has rolled out the red carpet for Oli. The outcome of the visit suggests that ties between the two countries are in a reset mode.
The agreement in connecting Raxaul with Kathmandu through an electrified rail line is a significant one, which may even one day see a linkup with a Chinese built line from Lhasa.
But of more immediate importance are smaller links such as the 28km link between Jayanagar to Janakpur and the 18km Jogbani to Biratnagar link are expected to be completed this year. The Jayanagar-Janakpur line will be extended to Bardibas town from where a train will be run to India.
Three other similar links from the Indian side to Nepal will also be taken up. Oli could not have been unaware of the unease his election caused New Delhi. But he had also learnt his lesson from the 2015 experience. Further, with the Constitutional provision barring no-confidence motions for two years, he also feels more settled into his position which, in any case, is electorally unassailable.
The Nepali leader now speaks from a position of strength as the leader of a soon-to-be-merged coalition of the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) and the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre). The new entity, simply the Communist Party of Nepal, has emerged as the dominant political formation in the country having swept the elections of 2017 and obtained a two-thirds majority.
Oli is a veteran politician who has done 14 years in jail as a political prisoner. As Prime Minister, he had the misfortune to run into India which instituted a blockade on Nepal in the wake of the refusal of the mainstream parties in the country to amend the new Constitution to accommodate the just demands of the Madhesi plains’ people. With the help of the UCPN-M, Oli became the first Prime Minister under the new Constitution in October 2015 just as the blockade got underway.
Equation with China
Given his inclinations, Oli took a defiant stand and refused to amend the Constitution and signed a trade and transit treaty with China to counter dependence on India. But nine months later, when the Prachanda and the UCPN-M withdrew its support, allegedly at the behest of India, his government collapsed.
However, Prachanda and Oli made up soon and Oli’s CPN(UML) fought the 2017 general election in a coalition with the UCPN(M) and the two got a total of 174 seats in the 275 member Parliament. Oli became Prime Minister for the second time in February this year. China is Nepal’s other major neighbour and it is not surprising that Nepal has long sought to leverage its ties with China to seek concessions from India.
This is par for the course for small countries and New Delhi must learn not to get too worked up over it. The India-Nepal Treaty of 1950 ensures that Nepalis are treated on par with Indian nationals in a range of areas, including private sector jobs, holding of property and so on. Some six million Nepalis live and work in India which is Kathmandu’s principal trade partner and largest source of foreign investment.
Many in Nepal chafe at this and see it as a humiliating dependency. Whereas Indians feel that Nepal is being less than grateful for the generosity they are being shown. This feeds a negative narrative in the relationship between the two countries.
Geography, culture and history link India and Nepal in a manner no other two countries are connected. But if Nepal is geographically “India-locked”, New Delhi should also know how important the country is for India, not just for security, but also our well-being.
Rivers originating in Nepal feed into the Ganga and whether in terms of their ecology or hydropower potential, they have important consequences for India. Beyond the Oli visit, both countries need to re-strategise their relations and offer a new narrative based on a mutuality of interests, rather than some cultural connect.
Like it or not, the Chinese presence in Nepal is likely to grow in the coming years. But talking down to Kathmandu on the alleged dangers of the Chinese debt trap is not a good idea. Whether it is Sri Lanka or Nepal, we must assume that their leaders are as committed to their respective nations as we are to ours.
That they would not willfully do something that would harm their own national interest. What we can do is to come up with viable alternatives and offer them, but leave it for Kathmandu or Colombo to decide what is the best option themselves.
Mail Today, April 9, 2018