View from the Himalayas | Border dispute, Agnipath scheme irritants in India-Nepal ties - Hindustan Times

View from the Himalayas | Border dispute, Agnipath scheme irritants in India-Nepal ties

Jun 17, 2024 06:54 PM IST

PM Modi’s 10-year engagement has won hearts and minds in Nepal but there are still major irritants in bilateral ties

To India’s neighbourhood, the 2024 election results offer an opportunity for a fine balancing act. The giant next door is seen (and celebrated) again as a self-correcting democracy and Narendra Modi is less of a political immortal. Self-profession of divinity in the leader of the region’s hegemon may have sounded discomfiting enough to voters at home. To smaller neighbours, it can sound ominous.

New Delhi, Jun 10 (ANI): Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets Nepal PM Pushpa Kamal Dahal 'Prachanda' after his oath-taking ceremony, at Rashtrapati Bhavan, in New Delhi on Sunday. (ANI Photo)(ANI) PREMIUM
New Delhi, Jun 10 (ANI): Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets Nepal PM Pushpa Kamal Dahal 'Prachanda' after his oath-taking ceremony, at Rashtrapati Bhavan, in New Delhi on Sunday. (ANI Photo)(ANI)

Elections have turned the page. BJP now leans on coalition partners to stay in government. From the pre-election heavenly heights, we are now hopefully down to human business. A lot has been achieved by Modi’s government in the neighbourhood, and with Nepal, in the last 10 years. However, bilateral relations and regional projects need to be constantly cultivated and revisited for mutual benefits.

Unsurprisingly, much of the early response in the civic space in Nepal has pointed at BJP’s underwhelming performance but also celebrated the Indian electorate and, by extension, democracy. That it’s timely checks and balances on BJP’s hubris and deeply polarizing politics. It’s the first time since the party took office in 2014 that the BJP doesn’t have an outright majority in Lok Sabha and it will need to work with coalition partners to stay in office. Hence the Modi 3.0 will remain more amenable to compromises, both within the ruling coalition and with the Opposition.

That said, despite electoral setbacks, the new government substantively gives an air of continuity, which may not be bad for Indian diplomacy after all. Modi continues in office, which makes him the only second Indian prime minister to get three straight terms, a point that must not be missed for its massive significance and mandate. The third-term prime minister has decided to continue with most of his top Cabinet ministers and key officials.

Amit Shah stayed put as Home minister, and so do Nirmala Sitharaman as Finance minister, Rajnath Singh as defence minister and, not least, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar as the external affairs minister, the large public face of Modi’s diplomacy. So, the early message from the Modi 3.0 in the neighbourhood: Continuity is important; indeed vital.

Second, like in 2014 and 2019, the new prime minister invited South Asian leaders for his swearing-in ceremony. Nepal’s Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ joined his counterparts from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Bhutan - Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sheikh Hasina, and Tshering Tobgay.

Despite recent hiccups, Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu was also invited and seemed happy to be part of the neighbourhood soiree. So, the continued emphasis on ‘neighbourhood first’ diplomacy.

Third, Modi’s emphasis on personal diplomacy. In his 10 years in office, Modi has dealt with a wide range of regional actors, including Nepal’s prime ministers – starting with Nepali Congress’ Sushil Koirala in 2014, followed by the Chairman of Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist Chairman, or the CPN-UML, KP Oli, the Maoist Chairman ‘Prachanda’ and Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba.

In Nepal’s ever-changing political landscape, the last three have had two stints at Singha Durbar, even as Modi enjoyed a firm grip over Indian politics for 10 long years. BJP leaders, especially Modi, Jaishankar and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, have in recent times also engaged with key leaders from the new Rashtriya Swatantra Party (RSP), the fourth-largest party.

Like many other major actors, Doval has also been appointed for a third term.

Make no mistake: A large section of the Nepali population regards Modi with much fondness. When he first visited Kathmandu in 2014 as prime minister, he became the first Indian head of government to do so in 17 years. In all, he has visited Nepal five times - as many times as he has visited China and Russia, and only less than five countries - Germany (six times); France, Japan and UAE (all seven times); and the United States (eight times).

In his nationally televised address to Parliament during the 2014 visit, he observed that Indian leaders in office had shied away from Nepal for far too long and such a thing wouldn’t happen under his watch. He did keep his promise. In each of his visits and speeches in these visits, he emphasised the two countries and their peoples’ intimate civilizational and cultural ties.

So, it would be safe to say Modi is personally invested in Nepal’s major political parties and the public. Having spent a substantial period of their lives as political exiles in India, Nepal’s last-generation of leaders – such as former prime ministers Bishweshwar Prasad Koirala, Girija Prasad Koirala, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai and Manmohan Adhikari - enjoyed close personal ties with Indian leaders, dating back to the Indian Independence Movement.

However, the current corps of top Indian leaders is not well acquainted with Nepal’s key political actors except Modi.

What Next?

BJP didn’t fare well in Nepal’s two major bordering states — Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, though the NDA did remarkably well in Bihar (bordering Nepal’s central and eastern Terai) and Uttarakhand (to Nepal’s west) - where it swept all Lok Sabha seats.

So, there’s some talk here about whether the new coalition, with two key regional allies — the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh and Janata Dal (United) in Bihar — will have any bearing on the Modi 3.0 diplomacy. There was a major political breakthrough last year in diversifying Nepal’s power market when Delhi agreed to import 10,000 MW from Nepal in the next 10 years.

But it was also made clear that the exports have to come from the projects without any direct or indirect component of Chinese involvement.

Irritants in bilateral ties

First, the dispute over the northwestern Kalapani border area, which both claim as theirs. Second, Nepal has put on hold the recruitment of its citizens in the Indian Army after the Modi government’s implementation of Agnipath in 2022. Nepalis have been an integral part of the Indian military since 1816 when the East India Company enlisted them after a peace deal. In 1947 a tripartite agreement between Nepal, India and Britain was signed, allowing Delhi and London to continue recruiting Nepalis in their military. But the agreement has hit a roadblock after the Indian government introduced Agnipath, a fixed four-year term for 75% of the soldiers while only 25% are retrained beyond that period.

To both Delhi and its neighbours, the 2024 election results offer an opportunity to revisit the state of their ties. With the swearing-in done with and a new Cabinet already in office, the neighbours now have good reasons to closely follow the priorities of Modi 3.0.

Akhilesh Upadhyay is former Editor-in-Chief of The Kathmandu Post and Senior Fellow with the Center for Strategic Affairs at IIDS, a Kathmandu-based think tank. Views expressed are personal

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