Reaching Out to Nepal

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After Nepal Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli’s visit to India earlier in March the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will embark on a two-day visit to Nepal as a goodwill gesture on 11-12 May. This will be Modi’s third official visit to Nepal during his tenure, but the first after the promulgation of the new Nepali constitution in 2015. It has been reported that Modi will visit Janakpur, a birth place of Sita, an important religious place located 135 kilometers southeast of Kathmandu in the Terai region, close to the border with Bihar. It is to be recalled that this is the place that Modi wished to see in 2014 but could not. Along with Janakpur Modi is likely to visit another famous Hindu pilgrimage site, Muktinath. It has also been reported in the media that a preparatory meeting has already been held between Indian Ambassador to Nepal Manjeev Singh Puri and Lal Babu Raut, the Chief Minister of Province no. 2 in Janakpur regarding Modi’s upcoming visit.

Indeed, the main agenda behind Modi’s visit is to strengthen mutual trust and understanding with the Himalyan neighbour which got a major blow due to the economic blockade imposed by New Delhi in 2015. It is true that the contemporary India-Nepal ties have entered a new phase of interaction post the inception of the new government in Nepal, under Oli. At a time when the historical baggage of the 2015 Indo-Nepal blockade is still fresh in each other’s memories, a new path of negotiation has been welcomed by both the countries. As found quoted by Oli himself, the bilateral ties between the two countries have evolved and metamorphosed according to the “needs of times” and would indulge in catering to long term goals of friendship. This forward looking approach is not only intrinsic to the advancement of connectivity issues and the impending cases of negotiation but also the bilateral conduciveness which is required for the overall prosperity of the region. This is all the more significant in the presence of China and its all-weather friendship with Nepal, post the latter’s participation in the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. Against this backdrop it can’t be denied that with this growing closeness between the Himalayan kingdom and the Dragon state, in the Indo-centric locale, a new geostrategic power play is at existence.

In this context, the recent phase of interaction between the two neighbour countries may be analyzed. Scheduled on 11 May, the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Nepal comes at the wake of the recent sojourn of the Foreign Minister of Nepal to China. After keeping up with the tradition of the first political visit to India, the next destination of Beijing could be well guessed. Though on a friendly note, the Chinese appreciation of the new federal structure of Nepal along with immense investments in line with the Belt and Road initiative (BRI) creates an open ended perception in Indian psyche.

 

Reiterating negotiations: Areas to be highlighted

It is noteworthy that the focus of the newly formed coalition government in Nepal with the CPN-UML and Prime Minister Oli has been the implementation of the renewed foreign policy of ‘neighbourhood first’. In fact, China has also appreciated the ‘independent’ and ‘balanced’ foreign policy stance of the small buffer state. Though enveloped in constriction, China has also pushed forward the idea of all the three countries- India, Nepal and itself- working towards achieving better comprehensive regional goals.

The maiden visit of K.P Oli after assuming power may be regarded as the precursor to the visit of Modi in the month of May. The official invitation to Modi from Oli’s end to visit Nepal can be perceived as an attempt to ease the calculative premonition associated with the previous encounter, just the other month. The foundation of this new visit has already been made through the earlier discussions of two-way engagement in defense and security, connectivity, trade and agriculture. The fact that India had been standing by Nepal all throughout the crisis of the 2015 earthquake and would keep doing so was ingeminated. In a joint statement, both the Prime Ministers had addressed the all- inclusive development of a ‘prosperous and developed Nepal’ that would be in complete sync with “Sabkasaath Sabkavikaas” policy of the Indian government. The inauguration of the integrated check post at Birgunj, Nepal was also a major success. With the core intention of enhancing connectivity and the operationalization of cross border trade and transit of goods, a new horizon of integration opened up. Apart from the Motihari- Amkelhgunj cross-border petroleum pipeline at Motihari, Bihar, India was also substantiated.

  • Hydro-power

It is expected that the two sides will focus on strengthening cooperation on three broad areas: agriculture, railway linkages, inland water connectivity during Modi’s forthcoming visit. It is also expected that both countries may try to reach an amicable understanding on Arun III hydro-electric power plant to harness an unbiased opinion from both the ends, for public welfare. The State Bank of India is supposedly investing INR 80 billion in this mega project. When completed by the end of 2022, it is expected that Nepal can massively enhance its hydro power potential. However, the project has faced a lot of environmental concerns in both the nations, although previously endorsed as an achievement. It is to be recalled in this context that Nepal-China cooperation in energy sector has become one of the major irritants to India. Nepal has already signed the agreement with the China Gezhouba Group Corporation to build the long-mooted 1,200 megawatt, USD 2.5 billion Budhi-Gandaki hydroelectric project.

  • Agriculture

Apart from hydro-power there may be a review on the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that has taken place between the two countries to promote and protect the agro-industry, the scientific community and the consumers as well. it is noteworthy that there were extensive talks on partnership in agriculture between the two. Nepal has proposed easy access to Indian markets, making movement of goods across the border hassle free and establishing ‘quarantine testing’ facilities at the border or in Nepal. The current testing facility of quality of products is located in Kolkata. Time becomes precious when agro products are asked to be sent to Kolkata for testing. Nepal has also sought India’s help in establishing seed production centres in Nepal. Substantial percentage of the seeds for agriculture is bought from India.

 

  • Connectivity through inland waterways and railways

The augmentation and expansion of inland waterways has been a very recent development in the Indo-Nepal relations. The untapped potential of the region could be harnessed with the proper utilization of the inland waterways that could cohere with the prevailing geographic conditions. This would be a kind of an additional connectivity prospect. This is rotating around the India-Nepal Joint Working Group (JWG), which also facilitates the ongoing cross-border rail link projects. There are three other railway projects in the pipeline—New Jalpaiguri-Kakarbhitta, Nautanwa-Bhairahawa and Nepalgunj Road-Nepalgunj—and the leaders emphasized the importance of implementing the three remaining links.

Implications of Modi’s China visit

One of the dominant existential issues for a country like Nepal is to bolster its foreign policy so as to gain maximum benefit for development. However, as for the new government, there is certainly a point of dilemma that Prime Minister Oli and his Foreign Ministry are caught up in. This asymmetric dependence is not to India’s satisfaction because of the left-leaning tendencies of the country towards China. In this circumstance, the speculated visit of Modi to China can bring about new assumptions and impressions in the Sino-Nepal as well as the Sino-Indian relationship. To be more precise, this visit has been planned between 27-28 April in Wuhan. Labeled as an “informal summit”, it has garnered a lot of curiosity. One of the noteworthy points is that Modi would be visiting China again, the very next month, again for the deliberations of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit. There would also not be any agreements or joint statements made, just the plain but candid conversation. This has been named as the Modi -Xi Summit, which might have several bilateral and multilateral connotations. This visit will have a direct implication on the Indo-Nepal negotiations because it would be reflected in the meeting with Oli the next month as well.

The unique relationship between these three countries has a direct effect on the balancing capabilities of Nepal. If better negotiation can be established between China and India, Nepal will be in a better position of gaining investment and economic benefits from both the end along with a peaceful border. Thus, Narendra Modi’s visit brings with itself several important notions of future deliberations that can successfully generate a greater framework of working together, be it through the BBIN grouping or the access to South East Asia through China.

More so, Modi’s visit will be an opportunity for India to make a fresh beginning with Nepal again. Jayant Prasad, India’s former Ambassador to Nepal once stated “it is not always that between two countries the substance is important, but the cosmetics also becomes equally meaningful”. Reiterating the same tone one can conclude by saying that India needs to show its indication and initiative to change the prevalent negative perception of common people of Nepal through Modi’s forthcoming Nepal visit. It is time to illustrate India’s concern for the age-old Himalayan neighbour.