Nepal prime minister KP Oli will make India his first foreign destination as Prime Minister of Nepal on Friday, when he arrives in New Delhi on a six-day visit. While arguably not quite as high-profile as some of the other recent visits to India by foreign leaders, Oli’s is a significant one.
Significant, primarily because India-Nepal relations have been strained for a while now, and this visit gives the governments of both countries to set things right and the bilateral on a positive trajectory again.
Almost like it was back in 2014.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi kicked off his tenure by inviting Saarc leaders, including then Nepali prime minister Sushil Koirala to his swearing-in ceremony. He has since made two state visits to Nepal — his most-visited country alongside the US, Singapore, Russia and France — where he received a warm welcome from both, the government and the public. It’s notable that his August 2014 visit was the first by any Indian prime minister to Nepal in 17 years.
How relations soured
A road-bump was hit in May last year, when the Indian media faced flak from Nepalis for its perceived insensitivity and exploitative behaviour in the wake of the massive earthquake. Remember #GoHomeIndianMedia?
Admittedly, that didn’t affect relations between New Delhi and Kathmandu, but people-to-people relations took a hit. Government-to-government relations would take a beating around four months later when Nepal adopted its first fully secular and democratic Constitution — which led to the violent Madhesi revolt.
Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar visited Kathmandu (and met political leaders representing all sides of the debate on the Constitution) and upon his return, stated “We hope that Nepal's political leaders will display the necessary flexibility and maturity at this crucial time to ensure a durable and resilient Constitution that has broad-based acceptance.”
That seemed to be all it took for #BackOffIndia to start trending on Twitter.
And despite the Ministry of External Affairs’ assertion that India had “not handed over any list of specific Constitutional amendments or changes to the Government of Nepal”, things went further downhill. The ‘de facto blockade’ came soon after. This blockade prompted Oli to accuse India of ‘treating Nepal as if the two countries were at war’.
By October, Beijing had caught wind of New Delhi-Kathmandu tensions. And after Oli’s election as Nepal’s prime minister, the Chinese media began to portray him as ‘pro-China’ and the coalition he leads as ‘Beijing-friendly’.
The efficacy of Modi’s Nepal policy was under the scanner.
By mid-November, and after gentle talks and an economic blockade — one with which the Government of India vociferously opposed any involvement — it appeared New Delhi was in search of international support in its efforts to apparently influence the Nepali leadership to amend the Constitution and allay Madhesi fears.
First, it was a throwaway line in an India-UK joint statement that raised the hackles in Kathmandu. Modi and his British counterpart David Cameron “stressed the importance of a lasting and inclusive constitutional settlement in Nepal that will address the remaining areas of concern and promote political stability and economic growth”.
Kathmandu replied with this little stinger:
Nepal respects the international community’s support and goodwill for peace, stability and prosperity. However, Nepal strongly views that the constitution making is an internal matter of the country and Nepal is capable of handling its internal affairs on its own.
A diplomatic way of saying, “Go-… well, you know.
And a few days later, Oli took umbrage at India raking up the ‘decade-old issue’ of human rights violations in Nepal, at a UN Human Rights Council meet in Geneva.
What now for bilateral ties?
It was in January this year that Oli announced he would not be breaking from tradition — all his predecessors with the exception of Pushpa Kamal Dahal 'Prachanda' in 2008 have made India their first state visit — despite speculation in the Nepali media that he would opt for Beijing. But it was only after the five-month-long blockade was lifted that Oli greenlit his visit.
And since then, the general mood surrounding the bilateral seems to be more upbeat. The Kathmandu Post suggests that more than four Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) will be signed, including one on the ‘India-announced $1 billion line of credit’ and further assistance of $1 billion for ‘Nepal’s reconstruction effort’.
Nepal’s High-Level Political Coordination Committee has reportedly urged Oli to focus on ‘strengthening Nepal-India relations on a sustainable foundation’, states The Himalayan Times. And while Indian Ambassador to Nepal Ranjit Rae has predicted a ‘successful, productive and fruitful’ visit for Oli, former Nepali Ambassador to India Bhekh Bahadur Thapa said, “The visit should lay the foundation for good ties.”
All of which is very nice, but it is instructive to look at the wording of statements emanating from Nepal that stress on 'mutual interests'.
Nepal has been widely seen as a buffer state between India and China, and both New Delhi and Beijing are eager to secure Kathmandu's friendship. There seems to be a notion — probably not completely unjustified, but likely very opportunistic as well — that Nepal gets less out of the bilateral relationship than India. And playing an active role in perpetuating this paranoia is Beijing.
The China factor
Sample this for an idea of the sort of narrative that dominates the issue of India-Nepal relations in China: "Facing Nepal-India rows, China should be aware that the disputes cannot be resolved immediately. As a responsible country, Beijing ought to help address the issue in accordance with its own capacities. First of all, China is supposed to play a role as a mediator between Nepal and India," writes Xu Liang in Global Times.
Just how responsible, is open to interpretation and just who decided China is supposed to play that role is unclear. But the article continues to stoke the flames by stating that Beijing must "be careful not to step into the minefields between Nepal and India". It goes on to flag 'territorial disputes over the Lipu-Lekh Pass (that) have been simmering for years between Kathmandu and New Delhi' and that the pass was mentioned in an India-China joint statement has 'triggered Nepalese protests'.
Sidestepping China's overtures is something that Indian governments have traditionally managed to do vis-à-vis Nepal. But to manage that during this fractious period in India-Nepal relations will be a diplomatic feat for Modi and his Cabinet. And the meeting with Modi on Saturday will set the foundation for this feat. As per Oli's schedule, he is scheduled to meet Modi at Hyderabad following a ceremonial reception and guard of honour at Rashtrapati Bhavan and the customary payment of homage to Mahatma Gandhi at Rajghat.
Style over substance?
A potential hiccup during the visit could be India's decision earlier this month to offer the services of its Gurkha soldiers to Brunei, which reportedly goes against the 'spirit of the 1947 tripartite agreement' between India, Nepal and the UK. According to this agreement, Gurkha soldiers may be 'integrated into the Indian and British Army, but not treated as mercenaries'. Whether or not this issue comes up, it's bound to be sitting at the back of Oli's mind.
For now though, we can expect the six-day visit to be high on optics, with plenty of hugs, tweets and photo-ops flying around. The message that India will hope to send out — especially to China — is that things are hunky-dory and at the end of the day, both countries are still good friends. To that effect, there will be MoUs — mainily cultural or aid-based — signed and all sorts of consultations on a variety of issues. Will there be any substance behind all that style though?
We'll have a better idea next Wednesday when the Nepali prime minister returns to Kathmandu, but the significance of the opportunity that this visit gives India and Nepal to set their bilateral on the right path cannot be overstated.