From all accounts, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Nepal has been a success. It was a great idea to combine his personal pilgrimage with a State visit. It encouraged the common people to connect with him as another Shiva worshipper, as Nepalese themselves are, and at the same time be exposed to his thoughts. He enthralled the common people of Nepal as well as their leaders. The success of Modi’s visit highlights the mistake of our previous leaders who neglected Nepal for the last two decades. IK Gujral, the last Indian PM to make a bilateral visit to Nepal, was known for his liberal attitude towards the country. Modi seems to have taken a leaf out of Gujral’s book by being big-hearted and forthcoming during his visit. He not only announced a $1-billion special assistance package for Nepal’s development but a raft of other measures for re-building trust.
More importantly, Modi won over his hosts by recognising Nepal’s sovereignty, its importance to India and demonstrating due respect to its people. He did this by visiting Nepal within the first 100 days of taking office, starting his speech in Nepali at the Constituent Assembly and declaring that Nepal has shown the way to the world by moving from “Yuddh se Buddh ki ore”. He changed the image of Nepalis when he observed: “I salute the Nepali braves who have laid down their lives for India.” His actions and words will hopefully heal the deep hurt caused by some of our arrogant diplomats and high-handed agency personnel who have behaved in the most boorish fashion over the years. The case of one of our high commissioners landing up in the PM’s office in slippers to read out the riot act rankles in every Nepali heart. Such incidents represent the worst example of India’s big brother attitude towards its South Asian neighbours. Hopefully, that era is now behind us with the lead given by both the prime minister and foreign minister.
In Parliament, emphasising the need for follow-up action, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj said: “The prime minister’s visit has given a whole new impetus, new direction and new dynamism to our vital relationship with Nepal, which we are determined to further intensify and build upon.” Focused and sustained follow-up will be the key to take this relationship to a higher level. The most important thing is to ensure that the power trade agreement (PTA) is finalised and signed by the two countries within the next 45 days as agreed during Modi’s visit. This will unlock the long and vexed issue of hydropower development and power export from Nepal to India.
India should be prepared to go the extra mile to clinch the agreement in keeping with the spirit of Modi’s visit. It is worth noting that Modi has given a virtual carte blanche for the revision of the 1950 treaty by inviting his Nepali counterpart to suggest the revisions. These two steps will transform the nature of Indo-Nepal relations and will have positive ramifications for India’s relations with its other neighbours and regional cooperation in South Asia.
Apart from these two major issues, there are some smaller irritants that need to be removed. The lack of testing facilities at the border for agro-products coming in from Nepal results in uncertainty, higher costs and rent payments for Nepali exporters. This can be rectified in two ways. The preferable solution is for India helping to establish these testing facilities with necessary technical capability in Nepal and accepting their certification. The alternative would be to establish these facilities for specified Nepali products at border crossings.
Secondly, the border infrastructure leaves much to be desired. For example, traffic is held up usually for long hours at the Raxaul-Birganj border for the lack of a flyover above the railway tracks. The condition of roads, customs posts and the behaviour of petty officials or border security guards must be improved because such minor irritants spread negativism, especially among the Nepali youth. The finalisation of the mutual extradition agreement will help to remove the public perception in Nepal, perhaps unjustified, of Indian security agencies conducting operations in Nepal. This will further help eliminate India’s big brother image.
The visits to Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal by Modi and Swaraj have set the right tone for this government’s foreign policy agenda as it reflects the highest priority for South Asia. A major breakthrough in relations with Nepal and Bangladesh and the mutual benefits that will accrue to all concerned is bound to be noticed in Pakistan and Sri Lanka and will encourage them to follow suit. Sustained and focused follow-up action and active political oversight will be the key. To ensure this, the leadership could effectively use inputs from Track II engagements that will allow them to identify bottlenecks and ensure real progress on the ground.
(Rajiv Kumar is senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. The views expressed by the author are personal.)