Nepal is India’s next-door neighbour. But high-level visits from India to the neighbouring country have remained infrequent for years now.
When Narendra Modi visited Nepal in 2014, it was first bilateral visit by an India Prime Minister to Nepal in 17 years. The last Indian president to visit Nepal was KR Narayanan in 1997, which makes Pranab Mukherjee’s three-day visit to Nepal from November 2 an exercise again in shrinking the gap between the two.
Last week, the two sides revived a defunct joint commission at the foreign minister level after almost two decades. The joint commission was envisaged as a mechanism to follow-up on projects India assist in Nepal. What was discussed at the last joint commission meeting and what Beijing is planning to do for Nepal, wedged between India and China, will explain why India is keen to remain engaged with the neighbour at the highest level as often as it can. Such visits also create the necessary buzz to keep the ties moving fast. The Nepal government has announced November 2 as a holiday in honour of Mukherjee.
The two countries enjoy close ties despite irritants like the Madeshi population getting a raw deal in the new constitution, which angered India, bugging the ties. But the way India is looking to speed up the projects augurs well for Nepal. For India, this is an imperative in the wake of China’s grand plans to expand its footprints in Nepal.
India and Nepal have also decided to expedite two ongoing cross-border railway projects and start three more railway projects. Biratnagar-Jogbani and Bardibas-Bijalpura-Jaynagar are the two ongoing railway projects that are put on a fast track. Nepalgunj-Nepalgunj, Kakarbhitta-New Jalpaiguri, and Bhairahawa-Nautanawa are the projects the two countries keen on to begin the work.
Emphasis to complete Hulaki Road works in the Terai and more funds for the road construction in the region and construction of an integrated check post in Biratnagar were also discussed.
To ensure that what the ministers agree upon are followed up, the first meeting of a joint oversight mechanism which was set up to monitor and clear the bottlenecks in ongoing projects will meet in a month’s time. Sectors such a road, railways and power are areas where Chinese are looking for opportunities in Nepal.
For example, Chinese companies have sought to conduct feasibility studies for the construction of railway lines that are of huge strategic importance for India. They include connecting capital Kathmandu with Rasuwagadhi, on the Chinese border, which will run through Pokhara and Lumbini. To put this in context, India has proposed a direct rail link from Kathmandu to Barahani on its border.
Even as India and China vie for influence in Nepal, what is also gaining traction - at least in China - is the scope of a trilateral tie-up which would facilitate trade among the three countries. But to keep the ties on a high, there is hardly any substitute for frequent high-level visits between the neighbours. That’s how it works in general, especially in the sub-continent.