New Delhi: India and Nepal on Saturday sought to turn the page on an acrimonious phase in bilateral ties over the Himalayan nation’s 2015 constitution with new “game-changing" initiatives in connectivity, trade and agriculture between the two neighbours.
But evidence of past irritants casting a shadow on ties was clear with the Nepalese Prime Minister K.P Sharma Oli stressing on the need for building mutual trust and seeking a relationship based on friendship, in a speech he gave on Saturday, hours after talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Oli arrived in New Delhi on Friday in keeping with the tradition of India being the first foreign destination of any newly sworn in Nepalese prime minister.
During official talks in New Delhi, the two countries agreed to construct a new electrified rail line, with India’s financial support, connecting the border city of Raxaul to Kathmandu in Nepal. This could be seen as an attempt by New Delhi to counter China’s reported moves to build a rail link between Tibet and Kathmandu.
Another key decision taken after talks between the visiting Oli and Modi was on the development of inland waterways. This will help “the movement of cargo, within the framework of trade and transit arrangements, providing additional access to sea for Nepal," an Indian foreign ministry statement said. “This new initiative would enable cost effective and efficient movement of cargo. The Prime Minister of Nepal noted the enormous impact the additional connectivity would have on the growth of business and economy of Nepal," it said.
The two prime ministers also attended the ground breaking ceremony of South Asia’s first transnational petroleum pipeline, that will supply fuel from India to Nepal. The 69km pipeline from Motihari in Bihar to Amlekhganj in Nepal will deliver 2 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) of petroleum products to the fuel-starved country and will be built at a cost of around Rs200 crore.
These decisions are significant given that in the past Nepal has been seen as keen to develop alternate routes to end its dependence on India for energy, connectivity, trade and transit due to its landlocked status.
It was during Oli’s previous stint as PM in 2016 that Nepal had sought to lessen its dependence on India as a principal supplier of key essential items like energy as well as the route for transit and trade. Oli had visited China soon after a trip to India in February 2016 and signed pacts for the import of fuel and on trade. This came after acrimony between India and Nepal over its 2015 constitution that seemed to marginalise some 51% of the country’s population and bestow extra political rights and privileges on the hill tribes constituting 49% of the population.
The bitterness grew as India was seen as supportive of the deprived Tharus, Madhsesis and Janjatis who blocked key supply routes between the two countries, preventing trucks carrying fuel and medicines among other essentials from reaching Nepal. India was also seen as instrumental in triggering the collapse of a fragile coalition government in Nepal, leading to Oli’s resignation as prime minister in August 2016.
On Saturday, the emphasis seemed to be to aside the differences of the past and move forward.
In his comments after talks with Oli, Modi said India will always stand by Nepal in its quest for all-round growth, adding that deeper cooperation between the neighbours would strengthen democracy in Nepal. Modi also hailed successful conduct of national polls in Nepal under the provisions of the new constitution that has seen Oli’s leftist coalition alliance win a strong three-fourths majority. In provincial polls too, Oli’s alliance performed well, solidifying its presence across the country.
On his part, Oli said his government wants to build a strong edifice of “trust-based" relationship between the two nations. “I have come to India with an aim to enhance our relations to newer heights commensurate with the realities of the 21st century," Oli said.
The Nepalese prime minister said his country needs support from its friends adding “relations among neighbours is different from other relations. This is based on mutual respect."
Modi also accepted an invitation from Oli to visit Nepal this year.
Nepal is to host the summit of BIMSTEC countries—a bloc that groups together select countries from South and Southeast Asia, something India is keen to promote given that India-Pakistan tensions over cross border terrorism has seen another region grouping in South Asia—SAARC—flounder.
Briefing reporters after the talks in New Delhi, foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale described the visit as “satisfactory" for both prime ministers. He described the rail and waterways connectivity initiatives as well as another proposal for India to help Nepal in agriculture as “game changing initiatives." Emphasis was given to ensuring completion of connectivity projects outlined in the past, he said.