Nepal’s ‘COVID Rush’ To India: Will Bilateral Ties Now Improve? 

The humanitarian aspect of the visit has unfortunately not been highlighted by the KP Oli govt in Nepal. 

4 min read
Image of India and Nepal’s flags used for representational purposes.

India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar held talks with his Nepalese counterpart Pradeep Kumar Gyawali on on Friday, 15 January, the first time since the border row. Nepal’s Foreign Minister Pradip Gyawali reached New Delhi on Thursday, for a three-day visit, to participate in the sixth Indo-Nepal Joint Commission meeting which commenced on Friday.

This is the highest bilateral level mechanism between Nepal and India, mandated to discuss the entire gamut of bilateral relations, including the boundary dispute which only recently pushed India-Nepal relations to the back burner.

The Commission last met 17 months back when India’s external affairs minister travelled to Kathmandu. Before leaving for Delhi, Gyawali told this author that his visit is aimed at restoring trust and confidence between the two neighbours.

“We want to have an open and friendly dialogue with India based on renewed trust and respect for each other’s sovereignty.”
Nepal’s Foreign Minister Pradip Gyawali to Akanshya Shah for The Quint

There existed a vacuum in the Indo-Nepal engagement after Nepal’s parliament endorsed a new map in May 2020 incorporating three areas – Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura – also claimed by India since long.

Following the telephonic conversation between the prime ministers of the two countries on Indian Independence Day 2020, a series of visits came up that ultimately paved the way for the present Commission meeting.

Director of the Indian intelligence agency R&AW, Samanta Kumar Goel’s visit to Nepal in October 2020 was followed by the Indian Army Chief General MM Naravane and Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s visits to Nepal in quick succession in November 2020.

In between, there has also been a meeting of the joint technical committee to discuss some important bilateral issues. Meanwhile, BJP’s foreign cell chair Vijay Chauthaiwale too went to Kathmandu in December 2020 on an informal visit — reportedly to bridge the gap between the political leadership of the two neighbours.

Domestic Political Backdrop Of Nepalese Foreign Minister’s Visit To Delhi

Gyawali’s visit comes at a time when Nepal’s domestic politics is witnessing a most delicate situation. PM K P Sharma Oli dissolved the House of Representatives on 20 December 2020, thereby pushing the country towards instability and inviting a constitutional crisis.

His move has been criticised by the opposition and the other faction of NCP (Nepal Communist Party) led by Prachanda and Madhav Kumar Nepal, as ‘undemocratic, unconstitutional and regressive’. PM Oli has been criticised for his autocratic way of functioning and dissolving the House in order to save his government just a few hours before the no-confidence motion was to be registered in the House. The matter is now at the Supreme Court of Nepal.

Gyawali’s visit must be understood in this context. The good part of this visit is re-establishing and re-starting of bilateral engagements that can bridge the trust deficit.

Indo-Nepal Communication Gap & Attempts To Bridge Trust Deficit

Since this mechanism is all-encompassing, there could be renewed talks in every sector from connectivity to hydropower to tourism and trade. Most importantly, Nepal and India would discuss modalities to deal with the COVID-19 threat and assistance to Nepal in terms of medicines and vaccination.

There are said to be around 33 agendas already set for the meeting.

Many of the past problems were because of poor communication.

Oli’s government had blamed India for lack of response over the boundary dispute before issuing the new map. This meeting will certainly open new windows for deeper and meaningful dialogues between the two countries. Any indication — even a deliberation — on the map row would be good signal for Oli government, which is now perceived to be cozying up to New Delhi.

Can Nepal’s ‘Caretaker Govt’ Make A Successful New Bilateral Engagement?

However, in Nepal there are various groups which see Gyawali’s visit as holding little significance. They argue that a ‘caretaker government’ cannot enter any new agreement or even negotiate with a foreign country. Talking to this author, former PM Baburam Bhattarai said:

“Oli’s autocratic way of functioning is a threat to the Constitution. We would have liked to welcome the new engagement, but the timing is most inappropriate. How can a caretaker government deal with another country?”
Former Nepal PM Baburam Bhattarai to Akanshya Shah for The Quint

Civil society and some media in Nepal have also been equally critical of Gyawali’s visit.

Nepalese Foreign Minister’s Visit To Delhi Is Due To COVID Emergency

In reality, the joint commission meeting has been pending since pre-COVID times. The MEA had said that India would talk to Nepal at “an appropriate time” indicating that it would do so once the COVID threat subsides.

The Oli government too has been more than keen to talk to India’s MEA.

Moreover, this is also an emergency visit in terms of Nepal’s urgent requirement for COVID vaccine. The Nepal government is under pressure to collect the right vaccine within a short time span.

The humanitarian perspective of the visit has unfortunately not been highlighted by Oli government. Third, from India’s point of view, the present Oli government has not been labeled as ‘caretaker’, neither by Nepal’s President nor the international community.

Have India-Nepal Truly Put Past Misunderstandings To Rest?

Thus within Nepal, there is no unified voice on the kind of approach to be adopted towards India, a country Nepal shares close relation with. At the heart of the problem is the present political turmoil in Nepal that could push the country towards instability and chaos.

Even when the two governments have opened dialogues, and is said that Gyawali is carrying a ‘special message’ from Oli to PM Modi (that could amount to the extension of an invitation to the latter to visit Nepal), it is difficult to ascertain whether the two countries have truly put past misunderstandings to rest. Given the fierce criticisms facing Oli government at home, it would be difficult for the two foreign ministers to enter into concrete agreements on various bilateral issues, especially on the controversial border dispute.

(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.)

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