By G. Padmaja*
It is one year since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi undertook a bilateral visit to Nepal on August 3-4, 2014. This was a historic visit because an Indian prime minister was undertaking a bilateral visit to Nepal after 17 years, the last one was in June 1997. Also it was Prime Minister Modi’s second bilateral visit abroad after assuming office, the first being to Bhutan. All this was indicative of the seriousness and commitment with which India wanted to pursue relations Nepal and with its immediate neighbourhood. The visit marked a definitive change in the manner in which India-Nepal bilateral relations would be conducted. The goodwill that this visit generated has been sustained throughout this one year despite some misgivings. India has been able to maintain cordial relations with all the political parties and stakeholders of the peace process in Nepal. The impression which was earlier present that India was not comfortable with Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (UCPN-Maoist) no longer holds true. Correspondingly, the last one year has also seen a broad consensus within Nepal regarding relations with India.
Revisiting Modi’s Bilateral Visit of August 3-4, 2014
The visit enabled discussions on the entire gamut of issues concerning the two countries. Both countries stressed that bilateral institutional mechanisms should be convened regularly and the reactivation of the India-Nepal Joint Commission at the level of foreign ministers after 23 years was a significant development. No issues were brushed aside and both agreed to revise, adjust and update the Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1950. Nepal would first give specific proposals in this direction which would then be discussed. The Boundary Working Group (BWG) was formed to look into and resolve all pending India-Nepal boundary issues. Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj stressed that 98% of the boundary with Nepal has been agreed upon. Security concerns arising from the open border and the necessary measures to prevent it from being misused were also discussed. In the context of the vital importance of transit rights to Nepal, the two countries agreed to simplify transit procedures for Nepal.
India announced a credit of US $1billion on infrastructure and energy development projects to be identified by Nepal. As culture is an integral part of the bilateral relations, the proposal for a Buddhist circuit covering places in both countries was discussed as was India’s assistance regarding conservation and restoration in the Pashupatinath Complex. The Nepal–Bharat Maitri Shiksha Karyakram focussed on deepening education assistance to Nepal. The issues discussed included ways to enhance sub-regional cooperation in the areas of trade, transit, connectivity and hydropower. The issue of cooperation on hydro-power generation was approached with rare degree of trust. Prime Minister Modi gave a HIT formula for Nepal saying that India wants to build Highways (H), Information highways (I), and Transways – transmission lines (T).
The Indian prime minister addressed the Constituent Assembly and Legislature Parliament of Nepal and through his address brought out the importance of the peace process and reached out to all the political parties and the people of Nepal.
The Other Developments
When Modi visited Nepal once again, this time to attend the 18th SAARC Summit in November 2014, bilateral relations were also discussed. The Pashupatinath Express bus service from Kathmandu to Delhi was flagged off; an MOU on National Police Academy to be located in Nepal and constructed by India was arrived at; other MOUs were in the field of tourism, health, youth affairs, hydropower. Prime Minister Modi also handed over one Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) Mark III to the Nepal Army which has been fully designed and developed by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).
The earthquake in Nepal resulted in Operation Maitri – India’s largest ever disaster assistance effort abroad valued at nearly four billion Indian rupees. India pledged assistance of $1 billion towards recovery and reconstruction of Nepal over and above what it had committed bilaterally during Modi’s visit.
On June 15, 2015, the transport ministers of Bangladesh, Bhutan , India and Nepal (BBIN) endorsed and signed in Thimphu, the BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement for the Regulation of Passenger, Personal and Cargo Vehicular Traffic between them . This step towards sub regional cooperation would have a positive impact on India–Nepal bilateral relations too.
The problem however arises in implementing what has been agreed upon. The prime ministers of Nepal and India expressed concern over the slow pace of implementation of projects under bilateral economic cooperation during Modi’s bilateral visit in August 2014. Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj while on a visit to Nepal on June 25, 2015, to attend the International Conference on Nepal’s Reconstruction said in a statement with reference to the developmental activities India is associated, “…We also hope that the early implementation of important projects such as Pancheshwar, Arun III and Upper Karnali Hydropower projects and Nijgarh Airport and Kathmandu–Nijgarh Fast Track Road Projects will create new avenues for people’s livelihood, enhance Governments revenue and contribute towards speedy post quake recovery and rehabilitation.”
The India-China understanding in May 2015 to expand border trade at the Lipulekh Pass led to many politicians and commentators in Nepal questioning this move of both India and China as they consider Lipulekh Pass as falling under its territory. Some commentators were of the view that Nepal should have been informed and its views also taken into consideration. The issue however did not escalate.
The Road Ahead: Building on structures of trust
Presently Nepal is debating the draft of its constitution with a desire to promulgate it by mid August. This internal process of Nepal has seen an open dissatisfaction from many quarters with respect to many provisions of the draft constitution. Nepal is going through a difficult phase and the country will continue to face difficult times even if a constitution is promulgated by mid August. However, it can safely be said that stresses and strains of this internal process will not adversely affect the India-Nepal bilateral relations. There will definitely be difficult times bilaterally for the internal tensions within will tend to spill over into India. Aspersions and accusations will be made on India. Already the timing of leaders of Nepal who have already visited India, like former prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ in July and Sher Bahadur Deuba in August while the constitution is in a crucial stage is being questioned. It is being argued that this reflects India’s desire for a leverage and stake in the new constitution.
India has repeatedly stated that it stands for drafting of an inclusive constitution based on widest possible consensus. The channels of communication carefully built by India with all the major parties will see that the relations are not rocked. However, India should carefully construct its responses to developments in Nepal which are in a crucial sensitive phase. It should focus on implementing agreements and regularly interact through the bilateral institutional mechanisms. Indeed, the structures of trust built in this one year will stand good heed in these difficult times.
*G.Padmaja, a former UNIDIR (United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research) Visiting Research Fellow at the United Nations, Geneva is an independent researcher writing on SAARC and India’s Foreign Policy towards its immediate neighbours. She can be reached at [email protected]
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