Nepal completed the political transition to a multiparty democracy with holding of elections for its three tier administrative structure under a new constitution when the new Left Alliance government headed by prime minister KP Sharma Oli took office on February 15, 2018.
India-Nepal relations had dropped to an acrimonious low during Oli’s first short-lived tenure as Prime Minister in 2015 following the Madhesi agitation against the new constitution they considered discriminatory. Bilateral ties were strained when New Delhi voiced its misgivings over the constitution and tacitly supported the road blockade that cut off supplies to the land locked nation. In response to the blockade that caused immense hardship to the people, Oli turned to China to join up to Beijing’s multi-billion dollar Belt and Road Initiative and open a new access route. He won the election on a nationalist, anti-India stance, building an image of a strong leader standing up to India.
Oli paid a three-day official visit to India last week which he described as “significant and fruitful” on his return to Kathmandu.
The visit helped to clear the mistrust and “bilateral relations will move forward in a new direction on the basis of equality and mutual interest”, he said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached out to the Nepali leader soon after the election results, congratulating Oli even before he assumed office while External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj flew to Kathmandu to extend an invitation to visit India. The proverbial red carpet was rolled out and as a special gesture home minister Rajnath Singh received Oli at the airport.
Oli’s rancour was visible shortly after the elections when he spoke about “resetting ties with India in keeping with the times”. It hinted at several changes in the relationship including changes in the 1950 Treaty, and ending the practice of hiring Gorkha soldiers by the Indian army. But Oli came to Delhi prepared to move on and ease the earlier tensions.
During his visit, Oli made it clear that the ties with India were important; he chose to stick to the convention of a newly elected Nepali Prime Minister visiting India on his first foreign tour though there had been rumours that he may decide to visit China first. The only exception was when Maoist leader Pushp Kamal Dahal Prachanda went to Beijing on his first foreign visit as prime minister. The visit raised eyebrows in Delhi though it was not a bilateral visit but to attend the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games.
Despite its blooming relations with China, Nepal would not like to be seen as firmly fixed in the Chinese camp. Ties with China cannot match the unique India-Nepal relationship. A train link from Tibet to Kathmandu and a transit route to an eastern Chinese port provide a boost to the Nepali leadership, but cannot supplant the accessibility of the transit route through India. Governments in Delhi and Kathmandu may be at loggerhead on various occasions but the ties between the two nations are closely entwined and transcend the official links. As a Nepali king had famously said – Nepal is a yam between two stones, implying that it needed balanced and friendly relations with its neighbours.
Oli has the advantage of heading a stable government elected with an overwhelming majority, but his government needs to focus on economic development. In Delhi, Oli urged Indian businesses to invest in Nepal as he sought Indian assistance to increase agriculture production in Nepal. India offered to build a rail link from Raxaul to Kathmandu, which would connect the Nepali capital with the Indian rail
network. The two sides also agreed on linking the water ways of both countries in a way that would afford an access to the sea. Both projects are long-term projects that have been on the table for long, but once implemented could greatly enhance connectivity.
China did not figure in the talks with the Nepali leader, according to foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale. But Oli is likely to visit China soon when he will take up the projects discussed in his last trip to Beijing. New Delhi will have to deal with the Chinese presence in Nepal, China has launched a more assertive engagement with its South Asian neighbourhood, from Nepal to the Maldives. Beijing has the resources to offer to build large infrastructure projects in record time. Unlike Indian assistance projects in Nepal, Chinese works do not meet with the same political impediments that Indian projects often encounter in Nepal.
India has acquired the reputation of promising much but with tardy implementation and huge cost over-runs. The distrust has subsided; both sides understand the need to work together to rebuild mutual understanding. New Delhi has to be generous in its interactions with its smaller neighbours while keeping its own interests in mind.