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Does Modi’s reelection signal continuity or change on Nepal?

Published Date : September 9, 2019
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets the crowd during his swearing-in ceremony at the presidential palace in New Delhi on May 30 (Photo: Reuters)

On May 30, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Narendra Modi took the oath as India’s prime minister, to start his second five-year term. In his first term, there were several ups and down in Nepal-India rela­tions. There are thus concerns over how bilateral relations will evolve in the days ahead. Before discussing this, it would perhaps be worthwhile to remind ourselves of some hiccups in Nepal-India ties during the first terms of Modi and his Nepali coun­terpart, KP Oli.

After the 1990 political change in Nepal, Oli was regarded as a leader close to the Indian establishment. But during the 2015 Indian block­ade, he took a strong anti-blockade stand, with the support of leaders from across the political spectrum as well as a large section of the peo­ple. Even after the blockade end­ed, the relationship between Oli and the Indian political leadership remained strained. Some Indian leaders blamed Oli of playing the old ‘China card’ against India. Oli, mean­while, thought India wanted him out of power at any cost.

In May 2016, then PM Oli report­edly urged President Bidya Devi Bhandari to cancel her scheduled visit to India, which added to the mistrust. According to knowledge­able sources, the visit was cancelled as Oli thought India was trying to ‘topple his government’. Earlier, Nepali Ambassador to India, Deep Kumar Upadhyay, was recalled for allegedly being a part of the same ‘conspiracy’.

When the Oli-led government was toppled, Oli blamed India for cob­bling together the Nepali Congress (NC)-Maoist (Center) alliance. Come the three-tier elections in 2017, Oli and his communist alliance exploit­ed the ‘Indian interference’ to the hilt. And soon after the left alliance won the parliamentary elections, Oli went to Rasuwagadi on the border with China and inspected possible road and rail routes to the northern neighbor, again to India’s displeasure.

Deficit of trust

All these developments only add­ed to the mistrust between Nepal and India. But soon India seemed to have realized the folly of its hardline approach and started appeasing Oli, if only to halt his tilt toward China. Following the parliamentary elec­tions, India dispatched its foreign minister Sushma Swaraj to congratu­late Oli even before he was appoint­ed prime minister.

The climate of cordiality did not last, and Oli’s relationship with India started deteriorating again. First, Nepal cancelled the 2018 joint BIMS­TEC military drills in Pune, India, at the eleventh hour. India saw this as another instance of Oli’s pro-China bias. Of late, the joint Nepal-India Eminent Persons Group (EPG) report on revision of old treaties became a bone of contention, with Modi sup­posedly not all that keen to receive it.

In this backdrop, foreign policy experts believe building trust by tackling pending issues between the two governments should be an immediate priority.

Oli is under domestic pressure to convince India to receive the EPG report and implement it without delay. In its election manifesto, the left alliance had promised to revise the 1950 Peace and Friendship Trea­ty and other ‘unequal’ treaties with India. But it is not going to be easy as India is not in favor of fundamental changes, even though it promises to address Nepal’s grievances.

Dr. Pramod Jaiswal, a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies and a foreign-policy expert, foresees no major changes in India’s Nepal poli­cy. “But the Modi government will be more assertive abroad,” he argues. He adds India still believes Nepal and Bhutan fall under its exclusive sphere of influence and does not brook the presence of any third par­ty here, including China.

 BRI: Elephant in the room

China’s growing presence in Nepal is expected to add to India’s asser­tiveness. India had put pressure on Nepal not to sign the BRI Mem­orandum of Understanding (MoU) in 2017, but to no avail. India is still concerned about Nepal’s selection of projects under the BRI.

“India will not object to small BRI projects in Nepal but build­ing critical infrastructures such as railways, highways and big dams that have security implications will be of concern,” says Jaiswal. India has been maintaining that the proposed Keyrung-Kathmandu rail line should not be extended to Lumbini on the Indian border for security reasons.

Nepal is likely to face more Indian pressure on China. Yes, relations between India and China have improved following the informal Wuhan summit in 2017. But observ­ers say, chances are India and the US will increasingly work together to counteract the BRI and Chinese investment in Nepal.

With Modi’s reelection, there also are concerns about India’s approach to Nepal’s internal pol­itics. In the past year or so, India has maintained a studied silence on this, as interference in Nepal has been one of the main irritants in bilateral relations.

India may not maintain the same level of silence in the days ahead. A seasoned Nepali diplomat who has had extensive contact with the Indians says Madhes-based parties’ demand to amend the constitution will get more vocal. “As in 2015, India, especially its bureaucracy, is likely to stand in favor of those demands, and for greater accom­modation of Madhesi forces within the constitutional framework,” he says. Similarly, there are concerns in New Delhi regarding Oli’s con­centration of political power, par­ticularly in matters of foreign and defense policies.

PM Oli will try his best to remain in power with Indian support, while his party’s co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal will also try to worm his way back into Singhadurbar with the support of the same southern neigh­bor. This became evident when the secret power-transfer agreement between Oli and Dahal was leaked to the press on the eve of PM Oli’s latest India visit, perhaps to give the message that Oli is only a caretaker prime minister.

The victory of the Hindu national­ist BJP in the recent Indian elections has also emboldened Hindu forces in Nepal. They know of how New Delhi had put the Nepali leadership under tremendous pressure not to incorporate secularism in the new Nepali charter. In their reckoning, neither the BJP’s nor Modi’s core Hindu agenda has changed.

“Modi cannot impose the Hin­du agenda on Nepal. Yet there are concerns among the BJP leader­ship about forced conversions in Nepal,” says a formally-New Delhi based Nepali diplomat requesting anonymity.

More than this, the health of Nepal-India relations will be deter­mined by India’s willingness (or lack thereof) to resolve old issues like high trade imbalance, inundation in border areas, additional air routes, and border demarcation disputes.

published on 2019-06-07 16:06:00
Original Link : https://theannapurnaexpress.com/news/does-modis-reelection-signal-continuity-or-change-on-nepal-1617

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