Nepal and India may be generally compared to Canada and USA in terms of proximity. The comparison ends there. Unlike the drift in relations between the US and Canada, India has always tried to engage Nepal, even though the latter has sometimes felt stifled by India’s presumably Big Brother attitude. During his recent visit to Kathmandu, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an earnest attempt to woo his Nepali counterpart K P Sharma Oli and keep the Himalayan Kingdom in the Indian fold.
Apart from the historical and mythological linkages that Modi liberally referred to during his visit, the engagement with Nepal has always been one of ‘mutual respect and honour’. Given the Left alliance that Oli led in the last elections on the plank of ‘samriddhi,’ or delivering prosperity, Modi, with his Hindu rightwing credentials, had to work that much harder to infuse fresh ‘bromance’ into Indo-Nepalese relations.
The fact that barring the Terai-based Madheshis, Oli’s command in six other provinces of Nepal, seems to have been factored in by Modi’s team while re-invigorating relationships with the land-locked country. The border blockade of 2016 and Nepal’s decision to join China’s ‘one belt one road’ initiative had strained relations between the two neighbours. Last month Oli had led a 54-member business delegation to India. Prime Minister Modi’s two-day visit was reciprocal and firmed up the working relationship with Oli’s team.
Commencing the Janakpur-Ayodhya bus connectivity, laying the foundation stone for the 900 mw Arun-III power project and the agreement to develop inland waterways may be symbolic, but they resemble a starting point in normalising relations between Nepal and India. Improving air and rail connectivity would go a long way in furthering two-way movement of people for employment, business and tourism.
However, more important would be Nepal’s strategy to balance its relationship with India with regard to the Chinese. Investments by China in Nepal’s infrastructure and providing alternative sources of petroleum products should cause serious concern to India. However, India believes that with Nepal’s border of over 1,850 km with five Indian states – Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and West Bengal – is a limiting factor in China’s plans for using Kathmandu to pursue its interests in South Asia. In fact, Modi had emphasised that these open borders, guided by the peace treaty of 1950, are an important factor in strengthening ties between the two countries.
Then, Nepal’s aspiration to have a navy without access to water resources or sea may provide an opportunity for India to offer its naval bases for training, maintenance and hosting its units. In contrast, Chinese naval bases may not be of much use to Nepal given the distance, logistics and non-availability of linkages. India had always pursued its global interests as a soft power and this, in essence, would be more attractive for Nepal. In this backdrop, Prime Minister Oli’s assertion that Nepali soil will not be allowed for any anti-India military or terror operations is welcome.
Setting September 2018 as the deadline to sort out “outstanding issues” is important. Nepal’s concerns about its huge trade deficit with India needs to be taken on board. Similarly, power-related trade agreements have been subjected to closer scrutiny. Nepal, as chair of SAARC, has not been able to bring India and Pakistan back to the table after the 19th summit, to be held in Islamabad, got postponed indefinitely. Most SAARC members decided to pull out of the summit after Pakistan-based terrorists attacked the Indian army base in Uri on September 16, 2016. The two countries have much to gain from working together.