Narendra Modi has task cut out in Nepal: PM must save bilateral relations as Himalayan nation inches closer to China

Four years ago, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi undertook his Nepal visit barely three months after his government took charge, it had all the ingredients of a successful trip -- a much needed outreach to a neighbour as no other Indian prime minister had visited in 17 years prior to 2014. The atmospherics was right, a slew of promises on the infrastructure front was made apart from the announcement of a $1 billion line of credit (LoC).

File image of KP Oli and Narendra Modi. PTI

File image of KP Oli and Narendra Modi. PTI

The historic trip was part of the Modi government’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and raised hopes that India’s ties with Nepal would scale new heights. This, especially in the light of the traditionally deep and multifaceted relationship India has enjoyed with its northern neighbour, one with whom it also shares a long and porous border. 

But a floundering foreign policy vis-a-vis Nepal despite the tom-tomming of a ‘Neighbourhood First’ approach by the Modi government has meant that it’s slipping from India’s grip and into the welcoming arms of China. 

China has not only stepped up aid and investments in Nepal but is also dangling baits such as promising the landlocked country cross-Himalayan connectivity including a trans-national rail line connecting Kyirong, the Chinese town closest to Nepal to Kathmandu and Lumbini as part of its ambitious Belt and Road initiative (BRI). While India has refused to be a part of BRI, Nepal has joined the initiative. 

A lot will be at stake for India and Modi as he undertakes his third visit to Nepal—it’s a bilateral one like the one in 2014—and seeks to repair frayed ties. 

That Kathmandu has already hosted Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, the prime minister of China’s good friend Pakistan as its first guest after Khadga Prasad Oli took charge should also have New Delhi worried. Until Abbasi’s March visit, no Pakistani prime minister was hosted by the Nepalese in the last 24 years. The Kathmandu-Islamabad handshake is also indicative of waning Indian and growing Chinese influence in Nepal.

Having alarmingly ceded strategic space to China in recent years in a country India once considered its pocket borough, the task before the Modi government is now an onerous one. Never mind the religious route Modi is taking on his third trip—he will be going to the pilgrim towns of Muktinath and Janakpur—to reach out to both the Nepalese and his constituency back home, the visit will need to go beyond mere optics.

Modi will be seeking to bridge the trust deficit post the undeclared blockade India imposed on Nepal in 2016, severely crippling supply of fuel and other necessities to the Himalayan nation.

The blockade was imposed during the previous tenure of Oli as the Nepal prime minister. Now that he’s in the prime minister’s seat again, New Delhi has been trying to recover lost ground with Oli who made no secret of his displeasure with India during his election campaign earlier this year.

Indeed, Oli had made it abundantly clear during his earlier tenure as prime minister that he’s not averse to playing the China card against India. Stung by the blockade and in a bid to reduce landlocked Nepal’s dependence on India for trade and transit, the pro-China Oli was quick to visit Beijing in 2016 and ink no less than 10 pacts, among them being ones for connectivity through rail and inland waterways. Oli also signed agreements for the Chinese to build an international airport in Pokhara and get access to Chinese port facilities.

So it is perhaps with a measure of dismay that New Delhi views the return of Oli as his country’s prime minister. While India did dispatch External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Kathmandu to congratulate Oli even before he was formally sworn in as prime minister once again earlier this year, it needs to do a lot to recover lost ground.

New Delhi also needs to begin delivering on promises made in the areas of infrastructure and connectivity to truly walk the talk. While in keeping with tradition the newly elected Nepalese prime minister did make New Delhi his first port of call early last month, he was quick to remind the Indian leadership that it needs to begin delivering "sincerely" on infrastructure projects like the Pancheshwar dam. The mega hydropower project has failed to takeoff despite being in the pipeline for more than two decades. 

Neither has India been able to make good the promise made by Modi’s of HIT (highways, information ways and transmission) during his 2014 visit. India got a gentle reminder about this unfulfilled assurance from Oli who said "we need to realize this vision".

It’s overtures to the Oli government notwithstanding, its tango with China continues apace. Nepalese foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali was in China less than a week after Oli’s India visit, thanking Beijing for its assistance in projects like building airports in Pokhara and Lumbini.

His call to the Chinese for "a new paradigm for cooperation and commerce across the Himalayas" should make New Delhi realise the need to pull up its socks if it wants to counter the increasing footprints in a country it once considered its backyard.

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Updated Date: May 10, 2018 15:54:27 IST

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