Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

A special but vulnerable Himalayan relationship

Indo-Nepal ties have come full circle in the span of just 19 months

With the six-day visit of Nepalese Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli coming to an end, the India-Nepal bilateral relationship has completed a full circle in the span of a mere 19 months. This period saw the high of the August 2014 visit by Narendra Modi—the first by an Indian prime minister in 17 years—to Kathmandu and the low of a near-blockade on the borders in more recent months. Both the highs and the lows are suggestive of the special relationship that the two countries share and its vulnerabilities to domestic political exigencies with significant cross-border spillover.

The constitution of Nepal, which came into effect on 20 September after protracted delays, alienated a large part of the population comprising of the Madhesis, Tharus and Janajatis. Pursuing an exclusivist and discriminatory agenda, the mainstream parties—whose leaders hail from the hilly areas—colluded to go back on the promise of proportionate representation enshrined in the interim constitution of 2007. In addition to issues of representation, the principles of federalism and citizenship were also used to dilute the rights and privileges of the Terai-based population. Unsurprisingly, the promulgation of such a constitution invited fierce protests from the adversely affected communities.

The response from across the border wasn’t enthusiastic either; New Delhi noted the promulgation of “a" constitution but did not welcome the same. The Madhesis share familial, cultural and business ties across the border. Partly due to the protests and partly due to the incorrigible attitude of political leaders in Kathmandu—which led to disaffection among top leaders in New Delhi—the supply of goods from India slowed down considerably. While Sushma Swaraj, India’s minister for external affairs, claimed she was trying to send essential goods like medicine despite the blockade by protesters, the leadership in Nepal squarely blamed the Modi government for the halted queue of trucks on the border. Nepal also attempted to play the China card, albeit without much success.

A confluence of three factors brought a much needed change: (a) the government in New Delhi battling charges of mismanaging Kathmandu by the domestic opposition was eagerly looking for an opportunity to change track; (b) the opportunity was provided by the Oli government as it presented a four-point proposal to resolve the domestic logjam; and (c) the energy and vigour displayed by the protesters was gradually wearing off six months into the stand-off. The protesters also did not stand much chance of success once the Indian government decided to welcome the proposals of the Oli government. New Delhi was also keen to make sure that the usual tradition of Nepalese prime ministers making their first foreign visit to India remained intact. This tradition was broken in 2008 by former Nepalese prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’—currently an important partner of Oli in Nepal’s ruling coalition.

The souring of ties came after the historic visit of Modi in August 2014, when his speech to the constituent assembly won the hearts of the entire political class of Nepal. Modi also offered a blank slate to Nepalese leaders to amend the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship Between The Government of India and The Government of Nepal, which is widely seen as undermining the Himalayan country’s sovereignty. Modi visited Kathmandu again in 2014 to attend the 18th Saarc (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) summit.

In this context, the current visit by a 46-member delegation including Nepal’s home, finance and foreign ministers led by Oli is an important opportunity to reset the relationship and also the expectations. The visit has been successful so far; Oli has said that the misunderstandings of the last few months have been cleared away. The two sides have signed as many as nine agreements to push cooperation on a diverse range of subjects. India is an indispensable partner for Nepal as the latter is engaged in reconstruction after suffering two major earthquakes in 2015. The countries are also looking to expedite cooperation on infrastructure issues like roads and hydroelectric power.

The progress in these areas notwithstanding, the Modi government should be well aware that domestic turmoil can reignite in Nepal anytime if a long-term political accommodation is not reached. Nepal’s journey, in that case, to—in Modi’s words—sthirta (stability), samaaveshta (inclusiveness), samadrishti (fairness), and samriddhi (prosperity) will be indefinitely delayed and its ties with India will inevitably suffer.

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