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BRP Bhaskar: Another fence-mending effort
May 16, 2018
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

A fortnight after the visit to China to re-set relations with that country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Nepal during the weekend on a similar mission.

India always had a special relationship with Nepal, which, apart from being a neighbour, is the only other Hindu-majority country on earth. They have an open border and citizens of the two countries do not need passport and visa to travel from one to the other.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party nurses hopes of making India a Hindu nation and he was unhappy when Nepal proclaimed itself a secular republic in 2015, ignoring his appeal to delay the promulgation of the new Constitution.

Bilateral relations deteriorated when the Modi administration backed the demand by the Madhesis, who are Nepalese of Indian descent, for changes in the Constitution. As the Madhesis resorted to a violent agitation close to the border, free flow of goods to the land-locked country got disrupted.

The basic framework of India-Nepal relations was set by the British in the colonial period. Apart from its usefulness as a buffer state, Britain cultivated Nepal as a source of Gorkha soldiers for its fighting forces.

The Indian government, as successor to the British colonial administration, retained this framework. The provisions of the India-Nepal Friendship Treaty of 1950 fit into it.

Nepal’s political parties now consider it an unequal treaty. Changes in the immediate neighbourhood and the Asian region clearly call for readjustment of relations between the two countries on the basis of equality.

With Nepal going through a phase of political instability, marked by frequent changes of government, there was little forward movement for a few years. Things started looking up last year which saw a spurt in exchange of high-level visits.

The year also witnessed significant contacts between Nepal and China. Prime Minister Prachanda, who is also head of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre (CPN-MC), had a meeting with President Xi Junping when he was in China for the Boao Forum for Asia conference. The Chinese and Nepalese armies held a 10-day joint military drill on counter-terrorism and disaster response.

The army chiefs of both India and China were also in Nepal last year.

In the three-level elections which began in 2017 the Left alliance comprising Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) and CPN-MC, campaigning on a nationalist plank with anti-India overtones, won a decisive victory, picking up 116 out of 165 seats filled under the first-past-the-post system.

CPN-UML’s K.P. Singh Oli, who took over as the Prime Minister, is considered pro-China but he said his government would follow an independent policy.

The stage was set for a bid to improve bilateral relations when Modi telephoned Oli and other leaders and felicitated them on the successful conduct of the elections.

Oli chose India for his first official visit. Before leaving for New Delhi, he told the Nepalese Parliament the visit was aimed at deepening the relations that had subsisted between the two countries since ages.

Official statements that emerged after Oli’s visit to New Delhi and Modi’s visit to Kathmandu indicate that the two sides are moving cautiously. The Indian side was silent on Nepal’s internal issues like the Madhesi problem and the Nepalese side made no mention of the need to revise the 1950 treaty.

Modi’s initial mishandling of the Madhesi issue helped China to enhance its influence in Nepal, particularly through investment in infrastructure and connectivity projects which will reduce dependence on India for transit trade As the Madhesi agitation hit essential supplies, Nepal turned to China for help. Beijing was ready to help but there were logistical problems as China’s ports and commercial centres are far away.

Nepal has joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative, from which India is keeping aloof. But it has also evinced interest in improving connectivity with India through railways and waterways.

India cannot match China on investments. But, then, China cannot easily displace India as Nepal’s main trading partner. Nepal’s trade with India last year was about $5.9 billion while that with China was only about $900 million.

Geopolitical realties demand re-casting the relations between the two countries on a new basis. But, while in Nepal, Modi, with an eye to his Hindutva clientele at home, harped on mythological links. A bus service connecting Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, birthplace of Lord Rama, and Sitapur in Nepal, birthplace of his consort, Sita, was started during his visit.

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