Indo-Nepal relations in a new transition

Paper:

Mains: G.S. II International Relations

Context

  • The year 2020 marked China’s unprecedented aggression, with an aim to counter India’s conventional edge in Nepal and South Asia at large. Accordingly, China’s geo-strategic, economic and infrastructural drives were made tempting to a precarious Nepal with its fragile democracy and the adulterated ideological standing of the ruling Communist Party of Nepal (CPN).
  • It is of unique characteristic that Nepal’s internal political fundamentals continue to shape its foreign policy choices. In the process, what gets lost is the scope of pursuing ‘enlighted self-interest’.
  • The CPN is a divided house, and publicly, this was known when Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli dissolved the House of Representatives in late December 2020. The move was termed ‘unconstitutional’ by the experts and the country’s Supreme Court is hearing writ petitions against Mr. Oli. In fact, the Court has called for ‘serious constitutional interpretation’.
  • Amidst the domestic political crisis, the minister of foreign affairs of Nepal visited India for the meeting of India-Nepal Joint Commission with his Indian counterpart.

Focus areas of the meeting

  • The meeting proved to be more focused on confidence-building measures such as exchanges of courteous remarks on significant and concrete progress made since the last meeting of the Joint Commission in taking forward several bilateral initiatives, and the close cooperation between the two sides in combating the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • An early provision of vaccines to Nepal was positively considered by India.
  • On the development partnership front, the expansion of the Motihari-Amlekhganj petroleum products pipeline to Chitwan and the establishment of a new pipeline on the eastern side connecting Siliguri to Jhapa in Nepal formed a part of the discussions.
  • For the upgraded first passenger railway line between India and Nepal from Jaynagar to Kurtha via Janakpur, the elusive operating procedures for commencement of train services have been discussed.
  • Other “cross-border rail connectivity projects, including a possible Raxaul-Kathmandu broad gauge railway line”, were also discussed.
  • The Joint Commission laid emphasis on the need for facilitating cross-border movement of people and goods, thus giving the sub-regional cooperation, its actual due.
  • The recently inaugurated Integrated Check Posts (ICPs) at Birgunj and Biratnagar have helped in the seamless movement of people and trade between the two countries.
  • The construction of a third integrated check post at Nepalgunj has already commenced, while the new integrated check post at Bhairahwa would begin shortly.
  • Since Nepal relies on India’s seaports in a big way for trading, and goods are transported by road, the integrated check posts are expected to ease trade and transit.
  • The joint hydropower projects, including the proposed Pancheshwar Multipurpose Project, should get positive momentum following this round of meeting.
  • India’s support to two more cultural heritage projects in Nepal, namely, the Pashupatinath Riverfront Development and the Bhandarkhal Garden Restoration in Patan Durbar is significant in the times when China is exploring all avenues to disrupt Nepal’s natural choice in policy-making.
  • Moving away from the recent hiatus, Nepal expressed support for India’s permanent membership of an expanded UN Security Council (UNSC) to reflect the changed balance of power.

Nepal’s internal issues

  • Nepal demanded to include the boundary in the Joint Commission Meeting, India made it clear to find a fresh mechanism to resolve any such crucial long-pending issue. This was not something surprising, however, as Kathmandu had seen certain signals about this.
  • The growing disenchantment among the Nepali masses over the increased centralisation of power, failure of the Provincial System in addressing the developmental issues, misuse of Presidential authority by Nepal’s President Bidya Devi Bhandari, and unprecedented corruption provide ample room for a re-setting of Nepal’s democracy.
  • Worryingly, a large section of the people want the ‘cultural Monarchy’ back to substitute the Presidential system and a re-establishment of certain traditional ways to governance.
  • While the unusual developments are taking place in Nepal, there are many who still think that India is comfortable with some changes as its Nepal policy is heading very clearly towards deeper engagement with all sections.
  • The timing of the high-profile visit was strategically important as in the last few months, as Mr. Oli had categorically placed conditions before engaging with India at the top decision-making level.

Way forward

  • Democracy in Nepal is achieved, not ascribed, and Nepal and its people deserve a better deal than what has been offered by the Oli-Bhandari duo.
  • Like many other democracies across the world, Nepal’s democracy has been affected with an extreme rise in majoritarian sentiments.
  • Nepal cannot afford to enter in another round of political instability, and those who have commanding authority to spearhead India-Nepal bilateral relations must give a humane consideration to it.
  • At the crossroads, Nepal needs action and to come to term with realities.