The signing of MoU between China and Bhutan over expediting negotiations on their boundary dispute has made India cautiously note the development as it itself faces standoff with China on the Line of Actual Control.
This development would further keep India’s focus on the neighbourhood, especially in the Himalayan countries of Bhutan and Nepal. India nurtures close ties with Bhutan’s political parties and the ruling BJP has of late warmed up to Nepal’s political parties, particularly the current ruling coalition under the grand old Nepali Congress (NC).
Delegation Visits & Diplomacy Pick Up Again
Vijay Chauthaiwale, the BJP’s Foreign Affairs Department head, and former BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav visited Nepal last month. Chauthaiwale was invited to Nepal by the NC.
In reciprocal gesture, a three-member NC delegation led by former foreign minister Dr Prakash Saran Mahat just concluded a five-day visit to India on invitation from Chauthaiwale. It is believed that that was part of BJP’s new efforts to build party-to-party relation with political entities of the neighboring countries, a work said to be steadily in progress.
But the delegation’s visit has some significance. First, the BJP has had no party-to-party dialogue with Nepal’s mainstream parties for quite a long time. The NC too has had huge gap in this linkage building exercise. Moreover, the two parties have no major ideological differences that would create problems for such engagement.
Both parties encompass liberal democratic values that would logically make it easier to engage each other. NC as a central liberal party is seeking to build linkages with BJP as the single largest party dominating Indian politics since 2014.
Nepal and India Wish to Reset Relations
This Track 1.5 seemed most logical at a time where there has been consistent failure at Track 1, given contentious bilateral issues like the map row. The lowest point in Indo-Nepal relations came immediately after Nepal adopted a new Constitution in 2015 dismissing Indian concerns, especially regarding protection of the rights of the Madhesis living along the Tarai region of Nepal bordering northern Indian states.
In addition, Track 2 engagement between India and Nepal has been almost non-existence since the border blockage of 2015. Institution level interactions between think tanks and media of the two countries have virtually stopped and lately affected due to Covid-19 challenges.
It must be noted that in the past decade Indo-Nepal relation was driven at mostly by personality factor. The Late PM of Nepal Girija Prasad Koirala was the last of the leader to enjoy personal rapport with Indian leaders. Since his passing away, in the post-2010 period, personality factor has not been dominant in driving this bilateral relation.
It is likely that PM Sher Bahadur Deuba wants to cultivate personal linkages with the Indian leadership in order to bring about a pragmatic relation with India.
To develop a renewed tie, BJP has opted for Chauthaiwale, who is a moderate face in the BJP and can create a positive atmosphere in building the bilateral relation. Gentle, soft spoken and non-controversial, he seems ideal in dealing with Nepal’s present politicians.
Relationship with India Affected by Proximity with China
Earlier, the Communist Party of Nepal which included the united CPN-UML and Maoists were seen to promote party-to-party relation with the Communist Party of China (CPC). In June 2020, the two parties held a virtual workshop to share experiences on running the party and the government. The meeting was held even when India and China was involved in the border stand-off and there was souring of Indo-Nepal relation over Kalapani-
Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura. In 2019, too, just weeks before Chinese President Xi’s Nepal visit, the then ruling Nepal Communist Party organised a symposium in Kathmandu where scores of senior CPC leaders had participated. Many believed that the event was meant to promote Xi Jinping’s doctrine known as 'Xi Jinping Thought' in Nepal.
Deuba Government Aims to Check Anti-India Sentiment
The visit has also come at a time when there is political fragility in Nepal. NC is deep rooted in factionalism and intra-party feuds. There are many front runners to lead the party in upcoming 14th general convention of the party. Besides Deuba, BP Koirala’s son Shashank Koirala, and his nephew Shekhar Koirala are vying for top post. Likewise, Ganesh Man Singh’s son Prakash Man Singh and Madhesi leader Bimalendra Nidhi are other front runners. PM Deuba has been facing a tough job managing his coalition partners comprising of Prachanda-led CPN (Maoist Center), Madhav Kumar Nepal-led CPN (Unified Socialist) and Madhesi party people’s Socialist Party of Nepal.
The challenge before the Deuba government is to manage Nepal’s relation with India while dealing with anti-India sentiments in the country post 2015 blockade and lately due to the tuin issue.
In July, a person went missing after falling in to the Mahakali River while crossing it on a tuin at Darchula district of Nepal. As per the Nepali side, the SSB had pulled out an iron rope from the tuin before the man could cross the river. This incident created an uproar in Nepal and thus the Nepalese government wants India to address it at the earliest.
There are other contentious issues still to be resolved between the two countries, primarily over border dispute, especially involving Kalapani and Susta. “We have raised many of our (Nepal’s) concerns with Indian side and we are positive that those would be resolved through dialogue,” Dr Mahat told this scribe after his meeting with Mr Jaishankar on 9 October.
Dialogue on Border Issues to Benefit Both India & Nepal
It is in the interest of both the countries that dialogue on border issues be resumed at the earliest. Deuba government is urging India to agree on dialogue over border issue in order to minimise public anger at home. It is to be remembered that Nepal would soon head for general elections. Thus, maintaining positive public perception would weigh large on the minds of the NC leadership.
Deuba government is also facing huge challenge in dealing with China and the US at the present with the former’s BRI ambition and the latter’s MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) offer. China has openly urged Nepal not to rectify the MCC grant from parliament.
Yogi Adityanath's Focus on Nepal
The delegation also met with UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a keen observer of Nepal with close links with various Nepali temple organisations and Hindu right groups. Besides raising India’s security concerns with the delegation, CM Yogi also laid emphasis on need for Nepal to conserve and preserve its cultural and religious heritage.
Uday Shumsher Rana, a member of the delegation quoted the CM as saying, “Nepalese are forgetting their religious heritage. So you must revive it.” Reference was also made on the need “to conserve Nepali nationalism.” This clearly indicates his personal desire to promote the notion of Hindu rashtra which the far right organisations of India are pushing forth in Nepal.
Until the removal of the King in 2008, Nepal was the only Hindu kingdom in the world. It is no secret that Hindu right wing groups like RSS and VHP have been pushing for this agenda in Nepal that is closely linked with monarchy as well. It is noteworthy that India has not yet officially welcomed the new Constitution of Nepal 2015.
(The author is a Nepali journalist, researcher based in New Delhi. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)