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Nepal Needs a Proactive India in the ‘Neighbourhood First’ Spirit

India has learnt a lesson post-blockade & wants to re-engage with Nepal by being pro-active, not reactive.

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After three months of provincial and federal elections and a month after being sworn in as Nepal’s Prime Minister, KP Oli announced the names in his 21-member Cabinet. The alliance between the Communist Party of Nepal, the United Marxist Leninist (UML) and the United Maoist Center won 116 seats out of the 165 directly elected representative seats and 58 out of the 110 proportional representation seats.

If the parties actually unite as the leaders of both parties have committed, they will hold 176 of the 275 parliamentary seats. The Left alliance has also reached out to the Madhes parties, urging them to join the government and announcing their willingness to accommodate the amendments in the constitution.
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The elections were won on two major points. First, whipping up the nationalism sentiment, as KP Oli did during his stand-off with India during the blockade in September 2015. When Nepal was reeling in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in 2015, the Indian blockade put the lives of 28 million people at risk.

The blockade was used as a tool to push for an amendment to Nepal’s constitution to accommodate the demands of the people in Terai, with which India shares both cultural and political ties.

Second, the elections were fought on the agenda of economic development and prosperity. Voters were disenchanted with the Nepali Congress, especially its president and incumbent Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba; and there were no other alternatives apart from a newly-formed Bibeksheel Sajha Party, that was fighting their first elections in a few places.

A Re-Imagining of Indo-Nepal Ties

India, perhaps, is giving the impression that it has learnt an expensive lesson post-blockade and wants to re-engage with Nepal by being pro-active rather than being reactive.

The Indian External Affairs Minister was in Nepal to congratulate PM Oli, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to visit Nepal later this year. The Eminent Persons Group (EPG), formed between India and Nepal to review the 1950 treaty, is also getting its report ready for final touches.

This government wants to administer a new Nepal through federal structures. Since the knowledge and scholarship around Nepal is so poor in India, perhaps one of the starting points would be for India to learn more about Nepal.

Unlike the one in India, the new federal structure empowers the municipalities and village councils – these local bodies cannot be removed for five years. The move is expected to provide much needed stability in a country where government changes every nine months had become a norm. There has to be a better understanding of the new structures in Nepal and therefore, India will have to re-calibrate its engagement.

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A Bid for Stronger India-Nepal Partnership

Second, Prime Minister KP Oli has brought in several eminent leaders into his Cabinet. Former Central Bank Governor and National Planning Vice Chair is the Finance Minister; This is the first time Nepal has seen a technocrat get this position after successive finance ministers who had no clue about economics.

With trusted lieutenant Pradip Gyawali as Foreign Minister, the expectations are high. Similarly, picks like Rabindra Adhikari as Tourism Minister and erstwhile popular Gokarna Bista as Labour Minister also indicate Oli’s choice for popular new generation leaders.

Despite opposition within the party, there has been a push towards picking candidates with a positive public image over sycophants. So India will have to re-calibrate its mode of engagement with these ministers through structured official channels, rather than using its high-handed nature of dealings in the past.

Finally, investment is the key to the growth and development of Nepal. India has the opportunity to be the country that will partner in Nepal’s journey to the future, but timely action is important.

Nepal is home to a population of 14 million below the age of 25. This young population, that is bombarded with new life aspirations, via social media and growing internet penetration, will be looking to partner with a country that can fulfil their dreams.

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Gone are the days when in Delhi one talked to Nepalis as though they were North Koreans in South Korea. Understanding the economic opportunities in a country with an economy of USD 60 billion (formal and informal) and higher per capita than the neighbouring states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh will be key.

This is yet another opportunity for India to re-engage. We can only hope that it will not squander it away like it has done in the past.

(Sujeev Shakya is author of Unleashing Nepal and CEO of beed, Nepal based international management consulting firm. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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