India and Nepal's relationship thaws, but PM Oli's intentions to deliver results are as yet unclear
India and Nepal's relationship will depend on whether Nepal finally gives the Madhesis and other minorities full and equal citizenship as is their due.
By Seema Guha
India and Nepal are both in the mood to make up. Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s state visit to India sends out a reassuring signal, as it is his first foreign trip since assuming power. Nepalese prime ministers down the years have always done so because of Kathmandu’s close ties with Delhi. But this time around, when relations between the two had almost reached a breaking point and there was much talk of Nepal's other giant neighbour China stepping in to fill India’s place, there were doubts. Those have been cleared.
Before the India trip, Prime Minister Oli also announced that a panel will look into redrawing the provincial boundaries, and that its work would be completed within three months. The terms of reference have not so far been clearly spelled out. But Oli can claim that he has begun the process and India needs to have some patience. Two Constitutional amendments are already placed in Parliament.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was there at the airport to receive him, when he arrived on Friday. Her being there signifies the importance New Delhi places on the visit and that India is really hopeful about getting its ties back on track with Nepal.
Talks between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Nepalese leader were held on Saturday after Oli was given a ceremonial welcome at Rashtrapati Bhavan. The two leaders spoke at length about the political fallout in Nepal following the agitation against the new Constitution. At the end of the discussion, Prime Minister Oli said “misunderstandings” that persisted in the last few months “no longer exist”.
Prime Minister Modi said in his statement after talks that the new Republican Constitution was brought in after years of struggle by the people of Nepal and India appreciated the contribution of the political leadership and people of Nepal. “But its success depends on consensus and dialogue. I am confident on the basis of these principles and through political dialogue and by taking all sections together, you (Oli) will be able to resolve all issues relating to the Constitution satisfactorily and take Nepal forward towards the path of development and stability.”
Seven agreements were signed between India and Nepal on Saturday. The more significant is India’s decision to allow transit and use of the Vishakapatnam port for Nepal to send goods to Bangladesh. Both road and rail traffic would be allowed. This is a major step towards regional connectivity. India is also committed to building roads in the restive Terai area, which has recently been the scene of violent clashes between the India-origin people living here and the Nepalese security forces. The Muzaffarpur-Dhalkebar transmission line for providing electricity to Nepal was inaugurated by the two prime ministers. The transmission supply will initially be 80 megawatts. It will be increased to 200 MW by October 2016 and hiked to 600 MW by December 2017.
However, the takeaway from the current visit is not the agreements signed; it is the effort by both countries to clear the air. "The primary purpose of the visit, according to Prime Minister Oli himself is to clear the recent misunderstandings that have cropped up," Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar told reporters at a briefing after the talks at Hyderabad House. Prime Minister Modi in his turn assured the visitor that "India is there to assist Nepal and wishes the best for the neighbouring country," the foreign secretary added.
Jaishankar said that Oli briefed his counterpart on the political situation in Nepal centred round the new Republican Constitution. "The issues are still being addressed. Others to be addressed, but the effort is there to address all issues."
India is going all out to repair ties. Ahead of Oli’s visit, Modi had sent his special emissary Subramanian Swamy to Kathmandu, to smoothen ruffled features and set the tone for the visit. India is also aware that China is waiting in the wings. When Jaishankar was asked if China was discussed he said, "The word China did not come up."
From the public comments of both prime ministers it appears that the air has been cleared for now. But there are those who remain skeptical. "Truth is, not enough has been done to address the problems of the Madhesis, the Janjatia and others. It has been too little, too late. The Madhesis and others cannot remain second class citizens, permanently dominated by the pahari elite in Kathmandu," said Shiv Mukherjee a former ambassador to Nepal.
Both India and Nepal will make the right noises publicly. But much will depend on whether Nepal finally gives the Madhesis and other minorities full and equal citizenship as is their due. There are two schools of opinion in India over this issue. Some believe that India should not over reach and should stay away from Nepal’s domestic politics; after all the Madhesis can very well fight their own battle and get their rights. So long as India’s strategic interests are not affected, Delhi should turn a blind eye.
But this is not the majority view within the Modi administration. Most believe that unless the people living in the Terai areas are given their due the stability and security of the India-Nepal border will be affected. India’s security concerns are therefore linked with stability in the Terai. So unless people get their rights, their problems can spill over to the adjoining state of Bihar.
India publicly appears reassured, but much will depend on whether the Nepalese political leadership walks the talk.
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