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Bringing India-Nepal ties back on track

Rajesh Singh is a senior political commentator and public affairs analyst.
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  • September 05, 2016

    India heaved a sigh of relief after Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ assumed charge as Nepal’s Prime Minister earlier this month. New Delhi had got tired of and frustrated with the predecessor KP Sharma Oli regime, which appeared determined to undo the new warmth that had crept into the India-Nepal bilateral after Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in May 2014. Modi was quick to congratulate Prachanda and invite him to India.

    Note the contrast: When Prachanda had become Prime Minister for the first time in mid-2008, India had viewed the development with some alarm. After all, the Maoist leader didn’t exactly have a track record of being India-friendly. New Delhi’s worst fears were soon realised. Ironically, India had played a crucial role in clearing the way for Prachanda’s elevation, by persuading the monarchy to walk into the sunset; nudging the dominant Nepali Congress to do business with the Maoist leader; and convincing the Prachanda-led Maoists to give up arms and join the political mainstream. New Delhi had not reckoned, though, with the prospect of Prachanda forming a Government.

    This change in attitude from 2008 to 2016 speaks volumes about how and where India-Nepal relations have progressed. There are indicators that the new Prime Minister will make his first official visit to India — as per a long-standing convention. It could be in September or October. New Delhi will view this positively, given that Prachanda had chosen China over India for his first official visit when he became Prime Minister in 2008.

    The first few steps that the new Nepalese Prime Minister takes will set the tenor for the development of the relationship between New Delhi and Kathmandu. Prachanda has demonstrated some indication of change in style. He has admitted, “Last time I was inexperienced in the ways of competitive democracy. We (the Maoists) still had a mind-set from the insurgency years.”

    Admittedly, there is nothing in the statement which alludes to ties with India. But an admittance of error can be interpreted as one encompassing his attitude in general, including towards New Delhi. Moreover, given that Prachanda’s Government is dependent on the Nepali Congress and a clutch of Madhesi parties that have grouped under the umbrella of what is called the United Democratic Madhesi Front — both of which are on robust terms with India — the new Prime Minister is unlikely to adopt the confrontationist posture he did eight years ago.

    The India-Nepal relationship has often swung from one extreme to the other. In the last two years alone, this tendency has been in full play, and with unfortunate results for both countries. New Delhi and Prime Minister Modi were the toast of the Nepalese leadership cutting across party lines, and of the people of Nepal, following the Indian Prime Minister’s hugely successful visit to that country and his address to Parliament in August 2014. He struck a chord when he told the gathering of law-makers, “We have not come here to interfere with your internal matters, but we want to help you develop.” In light of the then ongoing work in framing a new Constitution of Ne-pal that would address the concerns of all communities of the nation, Modi advised, “Those involved in writing the Constitution should have a heart like that of a rishi (sage) and they should think far ahead.”

    Modi had also, during the course of his interactions, remarked that India was prepared to accept a revised version of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship signed in 1950. He said that Kathmandu had only to bring forth the amendments and New Delhi would sign on the dotted line, since it implicitly trusted Nepal. The New Delhi-Kathmandu bond grew stronger after India rushed in expertise and relief material within hours after a massive earthquake hit Nepal in April-May 2015, and promised any additional assistance that Nepal would ask for.

    Problems began after the Constitution, shepherded by the then Nepali Congress Government led by Sushil Koirala and backed by certain opposition parties, was adopted by Parliament on the strength of numbers in the House. It had followed a so-called 16-point agreement between the Government and the opposition, which had laid down the roadmap for the new Constitution. It was instantly condemned by various Madhesi parties and Janjatis because they felt short-changed by the provisions of the Constitution. Modi’s earlier advice that a consensus-driven rather than a numbers-determined approach should finalise the Constitution had been ignored. Koirala quit as part of an earlier arrangement, but failed to get renominated as prime minister, losing out to Oli and his Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist).

    India had got a whiff of the situation getting bad even as the countdown to the new Constitution began and the Madhesi leaders upped the ante. Trouble was in the air. Foreign Secretary Jaishankar was rushed to Kathmandu as Prime Minister Modi’s special envoy, to persuade the leadership there to defer the adoption of the Constitution, make appropriate amendments to it, get the Madhesis and others on board, and thereafter proceed. But it was too late. Moreover, Kathmandu viewed this intervention with hostility — a brazen attempt by India to meddle in Nepal’s internal matters. Adding to the sentiment were reports that Jaishankar had come armed with a set of seven amendments New Delhi wanted to see in the Constitution. The fire-fighting visit failed, and Nepal adopted the flawed Constitution in September 2015.

    The India-Nepal relationship plummeted to a further low in the wake of the disruption in the movement of goods caused by the Madhesi agitation. New Delhi and Modi suddenly became villains in the corridors of power in Kathmandu. Oli and some of his senior leaders added fuel to the fire by blaming India for the ‘blockade’ and the resulting misery it had brought on the common citizens of Nepal. This, no doubt, served the then Prime Minister’s political agenda. In the end, Oli lost the trust of both India and the larger political system of his own country, and quit.

    This backdrop is necessary to understand the challenges that both Kathmandu and New Delhi face in recasting the bilateral relationship. What is most needed is the restoration of mutual trust. Here, the China factor can be a deterrent, but it should not. New Delhi realises that it would not only be futile but also non-pragmatic to expect Nepal not to deepen ties with Beijing. However, Kathmandu must ensure that it does not engage with China in a way that can harm India’s strategic interests in the region.

    Finally, the Prachanda regime’s success in bringing India-Nepal ties back on track will greatly depend on his domestic performance; that is where the goodwill which can give him political heft lies. He has to move swiftly to amend the Constitution; live up to the promises made during the second People’s Movement (Jan Andolan); and get his country out of the financial morass the earthquake landed it in. According to some estimates, the economic damage the natural disaster caused has been to the tune of USD 10 billion — half the country’s GDP. Nepal is already reeling under heavy external debt (almost USD 3.5 billion to the IMF, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank put together). Prachanda has his work cut out.

    The writer is a senior political commentator and public affairs analyst.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.