To better India-Nepal ties, focus on implementation - Hindustan Times
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To better India-Nepal ties, focus on implementation

Jun 10, 2023 01:37 AM IST

India-Nepal ties have been viewed primarily from a political lens. Prachanda’s visit has instead emphasised the economic aspects of the relationship.

It is rare for a country’s Parliament to go into uproar over buffaloes. But that’s exactly what greeted Nepal Prime Minister (PM) Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ on his return to Kathmandu after a four-day official visit to India. New Delhi’s gift of 15 Murrah buffalo bulls led a Nepali lawmaker to say that Prachanda returned from Delhi riding buffaloes, resulting in a fracas in Parliament.

The chaos over buffaloes is but one element of the Nepali Opposition’s dissatisfaction over Prachanda’s Delhi visit. (Ajay Aggarwal/HT)
The chaos over buffaloes is but one element of the Nepali Opposition’s dissatisfaction over Prachanda’s Delhi visit. (Ajay Aggarwal/HT)

The chaos over buffaloes is but one element of the Nepali Opposition’s dissatisfaction over Prachanda’s Delhi visit. Nepali Opposition actors such as the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) and the Rashtriya Swatantra Party, and their loyalists, called the visit underwhelming and accused Prachanda of getting the President to pass a contentious citizenship bill on the eve of his visit to please New Delhi. They said he failed to discuss the Eminent Persons’ Group report on bilateral ties and couldn’t acquire additional air entry routes into Nepal. Above all, they blamed him for not having the authority to bring up a land-swap agreement over the disputed Kalapani border region.

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“The prime minister has taken a very hollow position in Delhi. He could not raise our concerns and issues that matter to us,” the former PM and Unified Marxist Leninist chair KP Sharma Oli said in Parliament.

On the border dispute that first cropped up in 2020, Prachanda had a foot-in-the-mouth moment. PM Narendra Modi’s acknowledgement of the issue in his press statement encouraged Prachanda to speak on the issue prematurely. In an interaction with Nepali editors in Delhi, he suggested that the land swap could resolve the issue, with one option that Nepal be given land access to Bangladesh via a thin sliver of territory connecting Northeast India to the mainland, colloquially known as the Chicken’s Neck or the Siliguri corridor.

Did the PM not fully comprehend the strategic nature of this corridor for New Delhi? Perhaps not. In any case, Nepali Opposition leaders picked up on his statement and re-emphasised Nepal’s claim over the Kalapani region.

But that has been a hallmark of Prachanda’s tenures as PM: High on expectations, but low on results. A marked lack of preparedness on the part of the Nepali delegation did not go unnoticed. The Opposition’s furore, thus, can be justified on these grounds, but this is unfortunate, because the unnecessary fracas around these issues took the spotlight away from some of the key developments of Prachanda’s Delhi visit. Modi’s announcement that India would buy 10,000 MW of power from Nepal in the next 10 years paves the way for a long-term power cooperation that Nepali authorities were seeking. That India has taken the lead in hydropower generation in Nepal can be surmised from the fact that the 480 MW Phukot Karnali project, now to be developed by India, was originally listed under the Belt and Road Initiative. Indian companies currently hold licenses to or are developing seven projects projected to generate 4,639 MW of power.

India’s approval to facilitate the export of 40 MW of power from Nepal to Bangladesh using its transmission lines is certainly the most remarkable breakthrough in South Asian connectivity. Cross-border digital payments may soon be facilitated as well, and Kathmandu can now use Indian waterways under the revised transit agreement. New integrated check posts, oil pipelines, and railway infrastructure are expected to boost trade and passenger connectivity. But the key, as always in Nepal-India ties, remains in implementation. Far too many agreements have been signed in the past without being implemented — the Pancheshwar multi-purpose project, for instance, which was first agreed upon in 1996, and whose detailed project report is now to be submitted within three months — for an observer to not retain a healthy dose of scepticism. The issue of additional air routes into Nepal, which was to be resolved within six months of the prime ministerial joint statement in 2014, is another such subject.

It was well known that Prachanda would shy away from raising contentious issues such as the border dispute, the EPG report and the Agnipath recruitment scheme, which Nepal had issues with. But there was widespread anticipation that a breakthrough would be achieved on the question of air routes, which has become another albatross around the neck of bilateral ties.

India’s unwillingness to budge must be read as recalcitrance on an issue that is of vital importance to Nepal, especially due to the fact that two new international airports at Bhairahawa and Pokhara remain inoperational. India has sent out a clear message, denying China and its companies market access via Nepal, by refusing to buy power from projects with Chinese involvement in any form — although few such projects can be named.

A similar reasoning seems to be behind not allowing flights between the two airports and Indian cities. India’s commitment towards expanding economic connectivity via road and rail transport is in stark contrast to this decision, especially since more and more Indian tourists are visiting Nepal. Although both airports were built by Chinese contractors, the Pokhara airport was built using China EXIM Bank funds, while the Bhairahawa airport was built under an Asian Development Bank loan. Reciprocity on these issues of air routes and air connectivity will signal India’s willingness to address its smaller neighbours’ concerns.

India-Nepal ties have, for the most part, been viewed primarily from a political lens. Prachanda’s visit has instead emphasised the economic aspects of the relationship, thus steering the relationship back to normal waters after a stormy interlude. Opposing India has long remained a mainstay of Nepali politics, and the reactions to Prachanda’s visit are no different, especially since he raised the stakes of the game.

Keep aside the political cacophony, and it is clear that the visit can provide a template for reimagining bilateral ties in a new era. But first, the goal has to be implementation.

Amish Raj Mulmi is an editor, commentator, and author of All Roads Lead North: Nepal’s Turn to China

The views expressed are personal

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