Why New Delhi Must Overlook Nepal’s Internal Politics and Engage

Regardless of the outcome of the Communist Party Of Nepal’s internal strife, Indo-Nepal ties must continue as is.

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Opinion
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After a prolonged period of strain due to the Kalapani boundary dispute, the Indian and Nepalese side sat for a dialogue on Monday, a move now viewed by many as a key breakthrough in communication between Nepal’s KP Sharma Oli-led government and India. The meeting was co-chaired by Nepal’s Foreign Secretary Shankar Das Bairagi and Indian Ambassador to Nepal Vinay Mohan Kwatra to review the status of the implementation of India-funded infrastructure projects in Nepal. This meeting of Nepal-India Oversight Mechanism, set up in 2016, carried out “a comprehensive review of bilateral economic and development cooperation projects since its 7th meeting held on 8th July 2019,” a press statement issued by the Indian embassy in Kathmandu said.

Both sides agreed to expedite the implementation of projects in the video conference meeting.

Important projects in Nepal under Indian aid, like the Arun 3 Hydropower project, petroleum pipeline, Pancheshwar Multipurpose project, construction and up-gradation of Tarai roads, cross-border railway lines were discussed. More importantly, the post 2015-earthquake reconstruction, irrigation, power and transmission lines, construction of Nepal Police Academy, integrated check posts, Ramayana circuit, HICDPs, motorable bridges over the Mahakali River, agriculture and preservation of cultural heritage were also discussed, according to Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Nepal also appreciated the COVID-19 relief package from India.

Hope For India-Nepal Bilateral Dialogue

The meeting came soon after the 15 August ice-breaker telephone conversation between PM Modi and PM Oli on the occasion of India’s Independence Day. Although a pre-scheduled one, it did prove to be a relief towards generating hope of opening up of bilateral dialogues. However, the statements issued by the two sides after the two prime ministers spoke, laid emphasis on contrary issues. While the MEA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) statement laid emphasis on cultural and civilisational linkages between the two countries, Nepal’s foreign ministry (MoFA) statement said that Nepal hoped to achieve ‘meaningful bilateral dialogue’. “The leaders expressed mutual solidarity in the context of the efforts being made to minimise the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in both countries... the prime minister offered India’s continued support to Nepal in this regard,” the MEA statement stated, adding that by “recalling the civilisational and cultural links that India and Nepal share, PM Modi thanked his Nepal counterpart for his telephone call.” According to MoFA, Oli, during his talks, said that Nepal “looks forward to meaningful bilateral cooperation.”

The Monday meeting was more symbolic. The Nepal-India Oversight Mechanism itself was set up after the realisation in New Delhi that India-funded projects were severely lagging behind and thus not being of optimum value.

India-Funded Projects In Nepal Are Yet To Be Fully Functional

Although significant progress has been made since 2016 owing to efforts from both sides, the majority of Indian government-aided projects are yet to be fully functional and operative. Given the uncomfortable relation that New Delhi shares with the Oli Government at present, it was also easier for Lainchaur to engage in a dialogue with Nepal’s foreign ministry rather than with officials from Delhi.

It was neither a face-to-face meeting nor did it have the potential to deliberate on the larger issues confronting bilateral ties, although the foreign secretary was perfectly in a position to bring up irritants in bilateral relations.

Sources familiar with the meeting have said that the map row did not figure in the Monday talk. In May 2020, Nepal strongly objected to the opening of a new road by India to Lipulekh region on the border with Tibet. Nepal objected strongly and responded by issuing a new map that showed Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura as part of its territories. These disputed territories have been under Indian control since long. Nepal’s Parliament subsequently endorsed the new map in to the country’s national emblem.

India & Nepal: Strong Voices From Both Sides Encouraging Strengthening Of Ties

There are strong voices emerging in both the countries for India and Nepal to improve ties. It is especially so for India given its present border standoff with China. But given the internal political problems facing Oli at home, Delhi’s position seems to be one of ‘wait and watch’. The Nepal Communist Party (NCP), which earlier sought Oli’s resignation from both posts as party chair and prime minister, seems to be now working towards finding a middle ground to reconcile dispute between Oli and other party co-chair Prachanda.

An internal party committee was formed to resolve the dispute too.

As a split in the NCP would bring disastrous consequences for the future of the party, many senior leaders like Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhalanath Khanal, who earlier supported Prachanda’s demand, are now anxiously trying to save the party unity. Even the second-rung leaders of both Oli and former Maoist factions have asked the two leaders to settle all disputes amicably. Prachanda had earlier blamed Oli for the government’s inability to deal with the COVID-19 crisis and for the PM’s unilateral ways of decision-making. However, only a new power-sharing arrangement can save the party from a virtual split.

India-Nepal Ties Shouldn’t Remain Hostage To Any One Internal Issue

Irrespective of the domestic political scenario, it is prudent for India and Nepal to engage in dialogue. It is a relationship of utmost importance for New Delhi, one that cannot be ignored given the traditional and cultural linkages between the people of the two countries and owing to open border arrangement between Nepal and India which is a sensitive security concern for New Delhi.

The COVID-19 scenario has dictated that diplomacy now be conducted online, and given the vast and impressive MEA engagements with other neighbours and widespread deliberations with partners at regional and international forums, there seems to be no logical reason why India should not engage with Nepal.

The larger understanding in New Delhi is that the immediate engagement with Kathmandu would depend on PM Oli’s presence in Baluwatar (official residence of Nepali PM).

But irrespective of the outcome of the CPN tussle, Indo-Nepal ties cannot remain hostage to one singular issue as this is an all-encompassing relation. Thus it would be wise to hold the upcoming meeting of Nepal-India Joint Commission, scheduled for October 2020. This is a mechanism at the foreign-minister level established in 1987 and is supposed to be held alternatively in Nepal and India.

The last meeting of the Commission was held in Kathmandu in August 2019. The COVID-19 crisis can hardly be an excuse anymore as that is not stopping India from talking to other neighbours. As a matter of fact, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla is on a visit to Bangladesh (18-19 August) right now to “discuss and take forward cooperation on matters of mutual interest.”

(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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