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The interminable EPG delay

Published Date : September 13, 2019

The long delay means members from both sides are losing hope that the recommendations of the report, which was prepared after extensive and taxing homework, would be implemented. In various bilateral talks and meetings, the Indian side has repeatedly cited the tight sched­ule of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the reason for the delay, but not everyone is convinced.

An EPG member who spoke at length says that Modi’s tight schedule and the upcoming Indian elections are not the real rea­sons. According to him, the Indian side is dissatisfied with some por­tions of the report, mainly related to the regulation of the Nepal-India border by adopting high-level tech­nology and identity cards.

“If both governments accept our report and implement its recommendations, the dynamics of the open border will change,” he says. India is report­edly not satisfied with some other provisions of the report as well. It is expressing displeasure over the leakage of the report to a ‘third country’ before its submission.

Observers say India’s reluctance to accept the report has highlighted a couple of issues. They argue it is not rational to expect the Indian government to form a position based on a report prepared by a group of experts. “If so, there was no need to form such a panel to suggest ways to redefine bilateral relations,” says a diplomat who is closely following EPG-related issues. “It is just a report prepared by a group of experts and it is up to the two governments to settle outstand­ing bilateral issues,” he says. He argues that the delay in accepting the report is a clear demonstration of India’s desire to keep the 1950 treaty unchanged and maintains the status quo on other issues.

The EPG’s eight members (four from each country) had reached a consensus while finalizing the report. Just before the report was finalized, some (but not all) Indian members had expressed a desire to make changes to some provisions and those changes were incorpo­rated in the final report. Besides other treaties and conventions, the 1950 Nepal-India Treaty of Peace and Friendship is the main docu­ment that Nepal wants to amend.

Members from the two sides shared they still await an appointment with Indian Prime Minister Modi to submit the report. “I do not see any reason behind the delay. Both countries are free to take or reject our suggestions,” says Surya Nath Upadhaya, an EPG member from the Nepali side. Soon after the EPG finalized its report, the Indian media had carried stories that said some high level Indian officials think the report’s recommendations should not be implemented, as doing so would end the special relationship between the two countries.

Disputes over 1950 treaty

The 1950 treaty has 10 articles, some of which are outdated. Article 2 states: “Two Governments hereby undertake to inform each other of any serious friction or misunderstanding with any neighboring State likely to cause any breach in the friendly relations subsisting between the two Governments.”

This provision is obso­lete as both countries are conducting their foreign policy independently. During the Doklam crisis between India and China in 2017, some Indian experts cited this arti­cle to argue that Nepal should support India. Nepal, however, took a neutral position on the India-China standoff that lasted 77 days. The Nepali side of the EPG has reportedly suggested scrapping this article.

Nepal also wants to amend articles 5, 6 and 7 of the 1950 treaty. Arti­cle 5 says: “The Govern­ment of Nepal shall be free to import, from or through the territory of India, arms, ammunition or warlike material and equipment necessary for the security of Nepal. The procedure for giv­ing effect to this arrange­ment shall be worked out by the two Governments acting in consultation.” As per this article, Nepal is free to import arms and ammunitions that its security forces need. Another “secret” arms agreement was signed between India and Nepal in 1965, but was made public only after 1990.

Article 5 of this agree­ment states: “The arrangements envisaged above shall have no bear­ing on the independent foreign policy on either Government. The Government of Nepal shall be free to import from or through the territory of India arms, ammunition or warlike material and equipment necessary for the security of Nepal. The procedures for giving effect to this arrangement shall be worked out by the two Gov­ernments acting in consultation.”

Indian officials maintain that Nepal should consult with India when it imports arms from third countries. In 1989 when Nepal imported arms and ammunition from China, India objected to it, say­ing that it was a violation of the 1950 treaty, and even imposed a border blockade. Nepal wants to remove such provisions from the treaty to ensure that it can freely purchase arms from third countries.

However, Dinesh Prasain, whose PhD thesis (from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi) deals with the 1950 treaty, has a different take. “Nowhere in the treaty is it explicitly mentioned that Nepal is not free to import arms from other countries. And Nepal has no obliga­tion to consult India in any way if the imported arms are not transported through the Indian territory,” Pra­sain says.

Article 6 and 7 of the 1950 treaty deal with how citizens of one coun­try are to be treated in another. Article 6 says: “Each Government undertakes, in token of the neigh­borly friendship between India and Nepal, to give to the nationals of the other, in its territory, national treat­ment with regard to participation in industrial and economic devel­opment of such territory and to the grant of concessions and contracts relating to such development.” Arti­cle 7 says: “The Governments of India and Nepal agree to grant, on reciprocal basis, to the nationals of one country in the territories of the other the same privileges in the matter of residence, ownership of property, participation in trade and commerce, movement and other privileges of a similar nature.”

Given the difference in the size, population and economic condi­tions between the two countries, Nepal cannot provide national treat­ment to Indian citizens. The fate of the Nepali migrant workers in India, however, is open to debate. Accord­ing to the EPG, India has about one million Nepali migrant workers, who are working there without a work permit. If this provision is modified, they might need a permit.

Says Prasain, “The treaty does not grant ‘rights’ to the nationals of the other country, it just gives them ‘privileges’.” Moreover, even the privileges related to “residence, ownership of property, participa­tion in trade and commerce, move­ment”, as well as the unspecified “other privileges of a similar nature” which have never been clarified, that each country grants to the “nation­als” of the other country, are not guaranteed—they are to be granted on “a reciprocal basis”. The reasons why India hasn’t accepted the EPG report are unclear, but it’s probably safe to say that it won’t do so before the upcoming Indian national elections.

The history

On 31 July 1950, the then Rana Prime Minister Mohan Shumsher Junga Bahadur Rana and Chandreshwar Prasad Narain Singh, an Indian government repre­sentative, had signed the Treaty of Peace and Friend­ship. However, dissatisfac­tion erupted in Nepal soon over the ‘unequal’ nature of the treaty and how it disproportionately favored India. Since then, revising or even scrapping the treaty has been a major political agenda in Nepal. Mainly, var­ious communist outfits and royalist forces have exploited this agenda to bolster their ‘nationalist credentials’.

For example, then Prime Minister Kirti Nidhi Bista in 1969 publicly spoke about the need to revise the treaty on the grounds that it was obsolete. After the resto­ration of multi-party democ­racy in 1990, the CPN (UML)-led government in 1994 also demanded the treaty’s abro­gation. It argued that the ‘special relationship’ with India must come to an end and there must be renego­tiations on the sharing of water resources, the recruit­ment of Nepali nationals into the Indian Army and so on. Similarly, in 1997, then For­eign Minister Kamal Thapa submitted a non-paper to Indian officials concerning the amendment of the treaty.

Political weapon

During Nepal’s 10-year-long insurgency, the Mao­ists vehemently demanded that the ‘unequal’ treaty, as well as other discriminatory accords between Nepal and India, be scrapped. Of late, during the national polls in 2017, amending the treaty was a major election plank of the leftist alliance, whose manifesto said: “The ten­dency to surrender to foreign forces will be discouraged. All unequal treaties and agreements signed with India including the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship will be reviewed and replaced on the basis of necessity and national interest. Diplomatic efforts will be applied to resolve border related prob­lems and the management of border points.”

Coincidently, the EPG completed its task at a time when KP Oli is leading a gov­ernment with a two-thirds majority. He has both the mandate and the time to take a decision on treaty revision. The Annapurna Express: 2019-03-03

2.2          Mixed progress on resolution of old disputes

During his maiden foreign trip to India in April 2018, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli insisted on implementing past agreements instead of signing new ones.

Unlike the past tradition of signing a long list of bilateral projects, the joint statement issued on April 8, 2018 mentioned only three new agreements: partnership in agriculture, expansion of rail linkages (Raxual-Kathmandu) and new connectivity between the two countries through inland waterways. During the visit, PM KP Oli and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi jointly inaugurated an integrated check-post and the Motihari-Amlekhgunj cross-border petroleum pipeline project, two vital pending bilateral issues. 

The two prime ministers ‘underlined the need for expeditious implementation of bilateral projects in Nepal, and to reinvigorate the existing bilateral mechanisms to promote cooperative agendas across diverse spheres.’ The sense of urgency in settling bilateral issues seen in the early days of the Oli government has gradually waned.

One year has passed since Oli came to power. While there was a sense of urgency in settling bilateral issues in the early days of government formation, such urgency has gradually subsided. In the initial months, Indian government officials and experts were of the view that India should address the issues raised by Nepal without delay in order to stem China’s inroads in Nepal and appease the new Oli-led Nepali government.

Many in Nepal think India only holds on to development projects but is not serious about completing them on time. This has added to the climate of mistrust. Speaking at a program organized by the Asian Institute of Diplomacy and International Affairs (AIDIA) this week, Indian Ambassador to Nepal Majeev Singh Puri said several factors contribute to delay in Indian development projects in Nepal. Puri was clearly hinting at the problems on the Nepali side. Observers recommend a nuanced approach to apportioning blame. While some projects are delayed due to the conditions put forth by India, others are pushed back owing to bureaucratic issues in Nepal.

The Biratnagar bang

There was encouraging progress in resolving bilateral issues during the initial months of the Oli government. An unauthorized camp office of the Indian embassy in Biratnagar had been a contentious bilateral issue. Successive Nepali governments had requested the Indian side to close the office but to no avail. It was only after the talks between Oli and Modi that India agreed to close it. Many thought this was a significant achievement of the Oli government.

Progress was also made in the joint inspection of flood areas. Nepali territories on the border are vulnerable to inundation due to the physical infrastructures on the Indian side. A couple of years ago, the two sides had agreed on a joint inspection of inundated areas, but there was no progress. In an attempt to find a solution, a joint committee has inspected such areas and prepared a report. The two countries are likely to act on the basis of the report’s recommendations.

Soon after the Oli government was formed, India agreed to provide additional air routes to Nepal, which is yet another long-pending bilateral issue. The four routes that India had agreed to make bi-directional or two-way are Kathmandu-Biratnagar-Dhaka, Kathmandu-Janakapur-Kolkata and Kathmandu-Janakpur-Patna in the eastern part of Nepal and Kathmandu-Mahendranagar-Delhi in the western. But India has now backtracked from its earlier commitment citing security reasons. A senior Nepali government official said that discussions with India are underway to find alternative routes and that there is a possibility of an agreement on Kapilvastu as an air entry point.

There are many hurdles in exporting Nepali products to India. This has created a huge trade imbalance between the two countries. Nepal has been asking India to revise the trade treaty between them and provide more preferential treatment to Nepali products. There have also been some positive developments in clearing the export hurdles. For example, India has recently lifted restrictions on the import of ‘entirely Nepal-produced’ ginger. 

Still ‘no entry’

Similarly, India has, in principle, agreed to provide the same treatment to Nepali private vehicles entering India that vehicles bearing an Indian registration number get in Nepal. During a joint-secretary level meeting held in India in July last year, the Indian side expressed its readiness to provide hassle-free entry to Nepali vehicles in its territory. Nepal had been raising this issue in all bilateral meetings.

And in December, India paved the way for Nepal to export surplus electricity to third countries via Indian transmission lines. In a set of new guidelines, India’s power ministry included a provision under which two countries having a bilateral agreement with India can use the Indian central transmission utility for trading electricity. In 2016, India had introduced a regulation that had created obstacles to cross-border power trade. Recent developments in energy banking could be dubbed another progress.

Oli and Modi jointly laid the foundation stone for the 900 megawatt Arun-3 hydropower project. (They did it remotely from Kathmandu.) Nepal and India also exchanged a Memorandum of Understanding on a preliminary engineering-cum-traffic survey of the broad gauge rail line between Raxaul and Kathmmandu.

After the formation of the Oli government, there was encouraging progress in some bilateral issues with India, but observers say Nepal’s decision to not attend a BIMSTEC military drill created an environment of mistrust between the two countries. So did a few other issues such as the Indian government’s reluctance to accept the Nepal-Indian Eminent Persons’ Group (EPG) report. Past experiences suggest that economic cooperation between the two neighboring countries is smoother when there is mutual trust at the political level.

Still there are a number of unresolved bilateral issues. In the past one year, there has been virtually no progress on the Pancheshwor Multi-purpose project despite intensive attempts by the two governments. Of late, there have been reports suggesting that India has proposed a new way forward, but there is still lack of clarity on the issue.

New urgency

Another prickly bilateral issue over the past two years has been the provision of an exchange facility of the now-defunct high denomination Indian notes for Nepali citizens. Nepal has been urging India to exchange up to Rs 25,000 in old denominations that Nepali citizens are holding but India hasn’t obliged. Meanwhile, the task up upgrading border pillars that started in 2014 is in limbo and the two countries are no closer to resolving the disputed territories of Susta and Kalapani than they were, say, a decade ago.

The Indian bureaucracy in recent years seems to have realized the importance of completing development projects in neighboring countries on time. Indian PM Narendra Modi has reportedly given instruction to Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and other officials to review such development projects periodically and clear any bottlenecks immediately. Indian bureaucracy seems to have got the importance of completing projects in neighboring countries on time

Speaking to APEX last month, Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali had claimed that there has been good progress in some matters of bilateral concern and that the Nepal government is making every effort to settle unresolved issues. “Both sides are working on settling longstanding bilateral issues and engagements at various levels are underway,” he said.

Nepal-India Oversight Mechanism, which was formed to identity the bottlenecks in bilateral projects and address them immediately, “is meeting on a regular basis to resolve problems in project implementation,” says Bharat Raj Poudel, the spokesperson at MoFA. The meeting co-chaired by the Indian Ambassador in Kathmandu and Nepal’s Foreign Secretary sits with various government agencies to discuss problems in development projects.   Published in Annapurna Express\ 2019-02-22

2.3.         Dahal’s Delhi drift

“What is the specific understanding? Has Oli committed that he would give you either PM, or party chair, or both, in two years?” “The spirit of the understanding is one of those two positions.” “And if he doesn’t?”

“We will see then. Right now, we will move with full sincerity. I am moving forward with that. I told Indian leaders that too.” This is a part of questions and answers of the interview between Nepal Communist Party Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal and The Hindustan Times, during his India visit in September 2018. In a party’s internal meeting held soon after Dahal returned from the visit, NCP leaders grilled him about the political statement he made in India. Leaders were of the view that it is not appropriate to speak about intra-party issues in foreign junket. Dahal tried to defend his statement by saying that the newspaper twisted his words.

But, there is no reason to blame the journalist. In a video interview provided to The Print, Dahal clearly said “without having understanding on power sharing, task like unification of party was not possible.” His series of interviews with Indian journalists clearly show his willingness to glorify the understanding reached between him and Oli. After promulgation of constitution in 2015, former prime ministers and top leaders of major parties do not seem so excited to visit India. Even if they visit, they want to maintain low profile. Dahal, however, seemed very excited once be received the invitation.

Earlier, Dahal was not so vocal about the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ with Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli about sharing of top posts after unification. With domestic media, he used to say that current government would last for five years, and he is for peace and stability, not power. Many were not convinced.  Dahal’s India visit has brought many things to light.

Relation with Delhi

Dahal clearly sought New Delhi’s support (as an external guarantor) to become prime minister after one and half years from now. First, Dahal is not sure PM Oli will implement the understanding. In 2016, Oli was to vacate Sigha Durbar for Dahal, according to the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ but Oli did not do so. Second, even if Oli is ready to handover leadership, other senior leaders of NCP may oppose his candidacy.

Once Oli steps down, there are senior leaders like Madhav Kumar Nepal and Bam Dev Gautam to stake claim of prime minister and party president. Dahal may have thought New Delhi may push Madhav Kumar Nepal as new prime minister after KP Oli and this possibility cannot be completely ruled out. There are not any official documents to show if dispute emerges about the understanding between Dahal and Oli. Even the senior leaders do not know about actual understanding between two leaders. That is why Dahal resorted to New Delhi to guarantee his post.

According to the interview published in The Hindustan Times, Dahal shared with Indian leaders about agreement with Oli and other aspects of party unification. For New Delhi, it was an opportunity to know in details about unification between CPN (Maoist) and CPN-UML and actual point of possible friction between the two leaders.  

After landing in New Delhi, Dahal first met National Security Advisor Ajit Doval which was followed by meeting with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Dahal’s visit was like an official visit of the prime minister. After Oli became prime minister with two- thirds votes in Parliament, New Delhi made all possible efforts to improve ties with Oli to prevent Chinese influence to further increase in Nepal. Indian policy makers are of the view that China’s influence in Nepal like in other South Asian countries cannot be curtailed, but it can be limited at a certain level with governments favorable to New Delhi.

Despite cosmetic improvement of ties with Oli, New Delhi fears that China’s influence in Nepal will be further expanded under Oli’s leadership. But, there are not any chances of government change for the next four years. New Delhi has obviously felt uncomfortable after the cancellation of military drill by Nepal and finalization of protocol of transit and transport agreement with China.  Thus New Delhi invited Dahal to take stock of the situation inside ruling parties and prospects of new government under his leadership.  Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi himself had invited Dahal to visit India when he was in Nepal in May this year. But it was said, then, that bilateral development agenda will be discussed, not political issues. 

Delhi’s interests

New Delhi believes that it is easier to work with Dahal, than with Oli, to lessen Chinese influence in Nepal. Dahal and New Delhi have had uneasy relations, but both are smart enough to use each other for short-term benefits.  In July, 2015 when Constituent Assembly was busy drafting the constitution, New Delhi invited Dahal for the official visit.  During the visit, Dahal met Indian foreign secretary, foreign minister, prime minister and president.  Dahal was invited to inform about India’s position on the constitution. This time, visit was not formalized through Ministry of External Affairs like in 2015. Dahal-New Delhi relation hit a low point in 2009 after New Delhi supported President Ram Baran Yadav’s decision to overturn the decision made by the then Prime Minister Dahal concerning the removal of army chief. After some strained relations for some years, both New Delhi and Dahal reached out to each other to improve relation.

The recent example is the toppling of KP Oli-led government in 2016.  After Dahal became prime minister by toppling down Oli’s government, New Delhi conveyed message to Dahal that there would be full support to develop CPN (Maoist) as an alternative to the then party CPN-UML. New Delhi and then Prime Minister Dahal also discussed about the development projects that would be beneficial for the revival of Dahal’s the then party CPN (Maoist). The unification between two communist parties was indeed a shock to New Delhi. 

Dahal and New Delhi do not trust each other completely, but often come closer to fulfill their interests. At this point of time, Dahal is seeking New Delhi’s support to ascend to power, and New Delhi is seeking Dahal’s support to minimize China’s influence in Nepal.

 If not possible to change government right now, New Delhi believes that some of its interests could be fulfilled through Dahal as he is a close ally of PM Oli.  After the promulgation of new constitution in 2015, India’s influence in the internal political affairs has been markedly limited. In 2015, Nepali leaders resisted India’s tough pressure and promulgated the constitution. We conducted three levels of elections amidst reservations from India.  Dahal’s visit could provide New Delhi an opportunity to regain its space in Nepal’s political affairs.  Published in Myrepublica ; Date : 2018 October 4

2.4 After Furore, Nepal Backs out of BIMSTEC ‘Joint Military Drill’

 Following strong opposition from various quarters, including leaders from his own party and main opposition Nepali Congress (NC), Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli has instructed the Nepal Army not to participate in a joint military exercise of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) countries.

Set up in 1997, BIMSTEC members comprise Bangladesh, Bhutan, India Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. The six-day joint military exercise focusing on counter-terrorism is set to commence in Pune, India on September 10, 2018. Nepal’s chief of army staff Purna Chandra Thapa was scheduled to attend the closing ceremony of the drill. But after Oli’s instruction, the Nepal Army has cancelled its participation.

“Nepal will not participate in the joint military drill of BIMSTEC,” Nepal Prime Minister’s press advisor Kundan Aryal told The Wire. He added that no decision on a BIMSTEC military drill had been taken at the summit in Kathmandu last month. A senior army official, requesting anonymity, also confirmed, “Following PM’s instruction, we will not participate in the military drill.” Officials worry about the implications of such a move on bilateral relations as India has already completed preparations for the drill. The Nepal Army, however, has not officially spoken either about its position on the issue or the prime minister’s instruction.

The controversy on the military drill comes at a time when the leadership of the Nepal Army is in transition. The decision to participate was taken when Rajendra Thapa was chief of army staff. He was succeeded by Purna Chandra Thapa when drill was organized. Not only experts and opposition parties, senior leaders of the ruling Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) have objected to the drill saying it is beyond the agenda of BIMSTEC. Among those objecting from within the ruling CPN are former prime minister Jhala Nath Khanal and former deputy prime ministers Narayan Kaji Shrestha and Bhim Rawal.

Oli’s instruction comes at a time when former prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, who is the co-chairman of the ruling CPN, is on an India visit at the invitation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The issue of the drill is likely to figure during the meeting of the two leaders, and in case Modi insists on having Nepal participate in the drill, there would be pressure on Oli to go back on his decision. Prachanda is expected to replace Oli after the latter completes two-and-a-half years in the government, if the agreement rotational on power sharing is honored.

The Nepal Army was making preparations for the drill even before the BIMSTEC summit, as the decision for the drill had been taken before the summit itself. The issue came into the limelight when Modi mentioned it in his address during the inaugural session of the summit in Kathmandu at the end of August, 2018.

“I welcome the upcoming BIMSTEC multi-national military field training exercise and the army chief’s conclave that will be held in India next month,” Modi said. The perception in Kathmandu was that drill decision was taken in the summit following pressure from Modi. Though the Nepal Army decided to participate in the drill, senior leaders of the ruling party say no decision or consultation had been made prior to the announcement.

 Similarly, senior officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said they had no idea about the drill. “It is customary that all external communication should go through the foreign ministry, but we have not been informed about the military drill,” said a senior foreign ministry official requesting anonymity. Officials from the Ministry of Defence too said they were unaware of the drill.

The Nepal PM’s instruction to the Nepal Army not to participate in the drill has once again brought the uneasy civil-military relationship in the country to the fore. After half-a-decade of military prominence following the Maoist insurgency, political parties pushed for democratising the Nepal Army and bringing it under civilian control after the 2006 political changes. The Nepal Army, however, was not very happy with the agenda and resisted any such move to maintain civilian control.

Successive governments after 2006 formed committees to formulate a plan for democratizing the functioning of the army but the reports of such committees are gathering dust. The relation between the Nepal Army and the civilian government was at its lowest when the then prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal removed Rukmangad Katuwal, the then chief of army staff in 2009. President Ram Baran Yadav overturned Prachanda’s decision, and Prachanda in turn resigned as prime minister. While this raised the morale of the army, it soured relations between the army and the civilian government.

Prachanda’s Maoist party then took to the streets demanding democratisation of the army and bringing it under civilian control, but soon moved on to other issues and more or less abandoned that programme. Although there is no major friction between the civilian government and the Nepal Army, observers say the issue of civilian control over the army is a question that needs to be addressed. Prime Minister Oli has maintained a cordial relationship with the army, and the army has always taken Oli as a politician worthy of its trust since the 1990s.

The present imbroglio, however, shows there was no proper communication between the political leadership and the Nepal Army. The army may not find it so easy to question the instructions of the Oli government, which has a two-thirds majority in parliament, making it the strongest elected government in Nepal’s recent history.

To iron things out,  Oli, during his address to parliament last Tuesday, said what was planned was not a joint military drill but an opportunity to enhance the capacity of the Nepal Army. Minister of foreign affairs Pradeep Gyawali has publicly said no such decisions have been made by government. In the face of such contradictory statements from top government sources, it is not clear whether the drill is not taking place altogether or it has been given some other name.

“It is a matter of serious concern that there is no information at the political and diplomatic level about the joint military drill of BIMSTEC member countries which is taking place in Pune, India,” former editor-in-chief of Kantipur daily Sudheer Sharma wrote in Annapurna Post, a Nepali daily.

Sharma, who has extensively written on civil-military relations and geopolitical affairs, further wrote, “The Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Office of the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers have no knowledge about the joint military drill. It clearly shows how our army or defence diplomacy is operating.”

Experts are also objecting to the drill saying it only serves the geopolitical interests of India and confers no advantage to Nepal. Moreover, they see the drill as another move to undermine SAARC and push for BIMSTEC. Experts say that unlike SAARC, there has been too much focus on security issues in BIMSTEC whereas connectivity projects, economic integration and other technical cooperation are neglected.

“The fundamental question lies on how the proposal was initiated. Was it the BIMSTEC Secretariat, bilaterally, multilaterally, MoFA or MOD? said security analyst Binoj Basnyat, a retired Nepal Army major general. “Neither the BIMSTEC charter nor its vision envisages joint military exercises. BIMSTEC security cooperation should have started with the army chief’s conference, military, civil police, armed police and intelligence to address the common challenges like the ones with the Ind0-Pacific command,” said Basnyat. In a clear indication of projecting BIMSTEC as an alternative to SAARC, Modi proposed nine new activities in the fourth BIMSTEC Summit held in Kathmandu on August 30-31.

India, which has already hosted some key programs under the BIMSTEC framework mainly after the cancellation of the 19th SAARC summit which was supposed to take place in November 2016 in Islamabad, has proposed a string of programs under BIMSTEC for the next couple of years.

Of the 14 priority agendas, counter-terrorism and transnational crime is one, and it is being led by India. India plans to develop a legal and institutional framework in the BIMSTEC region for countering terrorism and transnational crimes. India proposed the military exercise under the same agenda. The first meeting of BIMSTEC national security chiefs was held in New Delhi on March 21, 2017, and the second meeting took place in Dhaka in March this year.  The wire\ 08/SEP/2018

 2.5.        Border Related Incidents Are Turning Indo-Nepal Relations Volatile

The alleged killing of Govinda Gautam, on 8 March 2017, by India’s Border Security Forces in Nepal’s Kanchanpur district has yet again highlighted the urgent need to resolve the border disputes between two countries. The incident was a result of the dispute on land-related issues, which is common to the Nepal-India border.

Nepal has requested India to investigate the case and bring the perpetrator to justice. India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, spoke to Nepal Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal to express grief over the killing. India has assured Nepal that it will investigate the killing and has sought the postmortem and forensic reports of Gautam, who was cremated with state honour.

Protests Against India by Youth Wings of Political Parties

Initially, the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu categorically denied the firing by its Border Security personnel. Major political parties, like the Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML, condemned the firing, saying the incident was an attack on the sovereignty of Nepal. Youth wings of political parties have taken to the street to protest while social media is being flooded with criticism of India. The protesters demand that India should apologise for the firing and provide compensation to the family of the deceased.

The incident has, yet again, sparked anti-India sentiments in Nepal, much like the atmosphere that was caused by the 2015 blockade, soon after Nepal promulgated a new constitution. India also blamed the CPN-UML Chairman KP Oli-led government for fanning the sentiments. So far, India has been handling the issues with Nepal in a delicate manner, in a conscious attempt to diffuse the anti-India sentiment.

In February, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu and Finance Minister Arun Jaitly visited Nepal and assured their support for the nation’s infrastructural development. Nepal and India are also keen to resolve the pending bilateral issues and projects as soon as possible. There are regular meetings that are held on various bilateral issues.

The incident in Kanchanpur took place following a dispute between locals in Nepal and Indian security personnel, over the construction of a culvert in the bordering areas. Locals say that while they’ve witnessed several disputes such as this in the past, this is the first time that the Indian security agencies have opened fire and killed a person.

Disputes Will Continue Without a Permanent Solution

Nepal and India had erected a total of 8,535 pillars across the border, of which, 1,325 are missing and 1,956 are either damaged or semi-damaged. This no man’s land, then, becomes a bone of contention between the two sides, which often report frequent clashes over border issues. Fresh dispute may break out at any time if steps are not taken for a permanent solution. Around 15 months ago, a similar incident took place at Madhes’ Sunsari District, when four people were injured in the firing.

Both Nepal and India should prioritise the resolution of the border dispute. Both sides had expressed their urgency to resolve said issues after the Narendra Modi-led government was voted to power in 2014. At the time, both sides agreed to dispatch a joint technical team to resolve the technical issues of the border.

The two countries also agreed to hold talks at the foreign secretary-level in order to resolve the problems at Susta and Kalapani. However, not a single talk in this regard has taken place yet. The technical team has been dispatched but its efforts appear to be both slow and time-consuming.

Except Susta and Kalapani, there is a need of construction, restoration and repair of boundary pillars, and the clearance of no man’s land on both sides. Besides the technical aspect, the disputes at Susta and Kalapani must be resolved through dialogue by the political leadership. A resolution of these issues will enhance the bilateral relations between the two countries. Published in Quint.com\ Mar 12, 2017

2.6. Resetting India-Nepal Relations

Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Oli just paid a three-day state visit to India, his first foreign visit after taking office on February 15 this year, and his second visit to India as prime minister.

During the visit, from April 6 to 8, 2018 Nepal and India signed just three new agreements — a partnership in agriculture, as well as plans for connectivity through inland waterways and expanding linkages to connect Indian railway lines to Kathmandu — breaking the tradition of signing a long list of documents. Both sides described the three initial agreements as “path breaking agreements” to boost connectivity between the two countries. The two prime ministers also inaugurated a petroleum pipeline to be constructed between India and Nepal.

Oli’s trip to Nepal’s southern neighbor was keenly watched in both the national and regional arena for a couple of reasons: his anti-India rhetoric during the campaign season, his determination to expand cooperation with China to decrease dependency on India, and the strong expectation that he would try to resolve several pending contentious issues with India.

The much-publicized and much-awaited visit to India, however, produced less in substances and more in rhetoric. Both sides have kept contentious issues at bay, stating that they want to build up a forward-looking approach in bilateral relations. In fact, for their domestic political constituencies, both prime ministers had to display that bilateral relations are back on track, underplay their differences.  Thus, their points of emphasis were more on the cosmetic side instead of focusing on genuine bilateral issues.

It would be relevant to judge the outcomes of this visit in the context of Oli’s previous visit to India as a prime minister in 2016, immediately after a four month blockade along the Nepali border. Oli had returned from India in 2016 saying that “misunderstandings between two countries have been cleared,” but differences were clear. In fact, due to disagreements — mainly about whether or not to mention amendments to Nepal’s newly passed constitution and the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship Treaty — no joint press statement was issued at the conclusion of Oli’s 2016 visit.

This time, a 12-point joint statement was issued, avoiding key contentious issues between two countries. In a positive sign, the question of constitutional amendment, an internal issue of Nepal, was not mentioned in the joint press statement this time, though it had previously been included on past visits. This issue was figured out in the bilateral talks between Oli and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Before the visit, there were expectations that Oli, with a two-third’s majority and popular mandate at home, would take up the issue of revising the Peace and Friendship Treaty. During the campaign, Oli often talked about the revising the 1950 treaty, saying that it is unequal for Nepal. The beginning point of the Oli government’s agenda of “resetting and redesigning” relations with India is revising or scrapping the treaty, which has served as the bedrock of bilateral relation since 1950.

The joint press statement issued after Oli’s visit does not say anything about the revision of the treaty, however; this too had been mentioned on the previous visits. The Nepal-India Eminent Persons’ Group (EPG) is revisiting all bilateral agreements to submit a comprehensive report to both governments on how to reset bilateral relations. However, without substantial negotiations at the government level, progress on revising the treaty is highly unlikely.

Border disputes between two countries are another contentious issue that occasionally creates friction in bilateral relations. To enhance people-to-people relations, Nepal and India must resolve contentious issues relating to the border, including the two major areas of dispute at Susta and Kalpani. Four years ago, the two countries agreed to start talks at the foreign secretary-level in order to resolve the problems at Susta and Kalapani; however, not a single talk in this regard has taken place yet. Before embarking on his visit to India, there was pressure on Oli to raise those issues with Indian political leadership but the issue was not mentioned in the bilateral documents.

Aside from the disputes in Susta and Kalapani, there is a need for construction, restoration, and repair of boundary pillars, and the clearance of no man’s land on both sides. Besides the technical aspects, the disputes at Susta and Kalapani must be resolved through dialogue by the political leadership. However, the leaders of both sides seem unwilling to take up this contentious issue.

Another point of friction relates to India demonetization. In November, 2016, Modi announced his government would demonetize the Indian notes of 500 and 1000 rupees. This badly affected Nepali nationals residing in Nepal as well as in India because those notes were legal tender in Nepal. Nepali leaders and officials time and again requested that the Indian government make arrangements for the exchange of those notes held by Nepali nationals. Indian ministers and high-level government officials continued to assure that old notes held by Nepali citizens would be able to be exchanged.

Before the visit, Oli had pledged to discuss this issue with India, but it did not figure in the official documents. Asked about the demonetization question, Indian Foreign Secretary Vijaya Gokhale, while addressing journalists in New Delhi on April 8, 2018 said: “This issue was not raised at any of the meetings.” Similarly, other several issues related to trade and transit were not mentioned in the joint press statement.

The visit, however, generated some positive vibes to reset and redefine bilateral relations. First, the visit triggered a new discourse in New Delhi: India must respect Nepal’s sovereignty; mutual respect is a key in bilateral relations; and India should not meddle in the internal political affairs of Nepal or panic over China’s growing investment in Nepal. There are pressures on the Modi-led government in India to enhance ties with Nepal on the basis of these principles and work with the Oli-led government, which commands a two-thirds majority in Nepal’s House of Representatives.

Second, it seems that Oli has given a clear message to the Indian side that he wants to focus on economic diplomacy, to secure India’s support in his efforts to advance economic development and prosperity. In this context, both countries are preparing to focus on economic and development issues instead of political and other thorny bilateral issues.

While addressing a business gathering on April 6 in New Delhi, Oli wondered why Indian investors are not investing in Nepal. “Indian investors have invested across the globe so why not to go to the next door Nepal? Geographical proximity, easy access, cultural similarities are all there to make you feel good about Nepal. Seize the opportunity,” Oli told the business community.

With the promulgation of new constitution in 2015 and the completion of all levels of elections last year, Nepal’s political transition has come to an end. Now the country is preparing to focus on building up its economy. Oli has already made economic development a prime factor of his external engagement. In an address to the international community on March 27, 2018 Oli said, “Development imperatives at home will be the guideposts for our diplomatic engagements abroad. Focused pursuit of economic development agenda at the international level will remain a key priority.”

Oli further stated that that development and prosperity are universal goals and all nations have legitimate interest in achieving them. “We must therefore recognize the development space for everyone. Development must not be seen through the optics of geopolitics,” Oli said.

As India and China are competing to increase their influence in Nepal, Oli is trying to balance policy with both neighbors through a special emphasis on economic development. Talking about neighborhood policy, Oli had said that mutual trust will be the key ingredient of Nepal’s relationships with India and China. “In particular, we will remain engaged in the ‘vibrant economic drive’ of the neighborhood with a view to benefitting from it. We respect the legitimate interests of our neighbors and will not allow anything against them in our soil,” Oli said.

With wrap up of his India’s visit, Oli’s next destination will be northern neighbor China, where he is expected to sign a few deals on projects related to China’s Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI). During his earlier tenure in 2016, Oli signed groundbreaking agreements with China, including on trade and transit, and there are hopes that Oli’s visit to China will expedite those plans. Oli plans to bring massive investment from both India and China to fulfill his domestic promises of economic development and prosperity. The Diplomat, 2018, April 10

2.7    Modi’s Desperate Move to Rebuild His Image in Nepal

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a state visit to India’s northern neighbor from May 11-12 2018. It was his third visit since taking office in 2014, and the first since Nepal’s current government was inaugurated in February of this year. The chief purpose of Modi’s visit was to restore his image and goodwill, which dwindled in Nepal mainly after the unofficial Indian economic blockade in 2015.

Modi first landed in Janakpur, headquarters of Province No. 2, where he enjoys more support than in Kathmandu and Nepal’s hilly areas. When Nepal promulgated its constitution in 2015, regional Madhes-based parties, which are mainly active in Province No. 2, protested, terming it “a divisive constitution.” India vocally supported their demands for constitutional amendment. Speaking at a civic reception in Janakpur, Chief Minister of Province No. 2 Lal Babu Rawat said that people of this region continue to feel discrimination from the state.

“Despite the promulgation of the constitution, our needs are yet to be addressed. We will continue to struggle to guarantee our rights,” Rawat said, apparently seeking India’s support. But Modi, in his all speeches, did not mention anything about Nepal’s constitution; instead he lauded Nepal’s successful holding of three levels of elections in 2017. India, which vocally supported the demands of Madhes-based parties in 2015, now remains mum over those demands in order to improve ties with Kathmandu.

In Janakpur, besides pledging 1 billion Indian rupees ($14.8 billion) in aid to develop Janakpur city, Modi launched the Janakpur-Ayodhya bus service. Modi also inaugurated a “Ramayan Circuit” to boost tourism on both sides of the India-Nepal border. “This will act as a foundation for strong people-to-people ties between our two countries,” Modi said.

After Janakpur trip, Modi travelled to Kathmandu where he held bilateral talks with his Nepali counterpart K.P. Sharma Oli and another civic reception. Modi made a point to praise Kathmandu’s cultural, historical, and religious sites and their links with India since time immemooral. As part of that theme, Modi visited Muktinath, one of the famous religious sites of Nepal, and offered puja in Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu.

Modi rushed to Nepal a month after he rolled out the red carpet to his Nepali counterpart Oli from April 6 to 8. What promoted Modi to both host Oli and then visit Nepal within such a short span of time? India wants to restore its influence in Nepal, which witnessed a sharp decrease mainly after Nepal promulgated its constitution in 2015. After the Left Alliance secured two-third of votes in the national elections held in 2017 and formed Nepal’s government, New Delhi is taking a series of measures to improve ties with the Oli-led government. Modi’s visit is the latest step.

If it is not possible to restore ties to the same level that existed before 2015, Modi intends to at least give the message — both to his home constituency and to China — that India still enjoys a special relationship with Nepal and other countries cannot compete with it. Opposition parties in India are criticizing Modi’s foreign policy, saying that due its failure China is increasing its influence in Nepal and in other South Asian countries.

The 84th plenary session of the opposition Indian National Congress (INC), held in March 2018, heavily criticized the Modi government’s neighborhood policy. The resolution on foreign policy passed by the INC plenary says, “Congress notes with concern that India is confronting a major challenge in the Sub-Continental neighborhood. Never before in Independent India’s history, has the country been so diminished in its immediate periphery…. We have created spaces in our neighboring countries through episodic engagement, which has allowed other powers, in particular China, to entrench themselves.” The resolution listed Nepal along the Maldives, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka as countries where “recent developments… are a matter of serious concern.”

As general elections are due to be held in India in 2019, Modi is under pressure to improve ties with neighboring countries to prevent this issue from becoming a prominent campaign point for opposition parties.

Modi also personally wanted to restore the image and goodwill in Nepal that he enjoyed in 2014. When Modi was in Kathmandu this month, people remembered the 2015 blockade at the India-Nepal border. During his visit, social media was filled with demands that Modi apologize for the blockade.

By contrast, when Modi visited Nepal in August 2014 as the first Indian prime minister to visit the country in 17 years, he was warmly greeted by the Nepali people. While addressing Nepal’s parliament, Modi said, “Since the day I entered the Prime Minister’s office, strengthening relationship with Nepal is one of the top priorities of my government.”

Modi’s speech influenced lawmakers and impressed the Nepali people. He held up Nepal’s peace process as an example in the international arena and reiterated that Nepal is the country where the apostle of peace in the world, Buddha, was born. “This is the land of Sita and Janak. Nepal-India relations are as old as the Himalayas and the Ganga,” Modi told Nepal’s parliament.

The tone set by Modi on Nepal-India relations during his two visits in 2014 (in August and November) was not continued in the subsequent years. As noted above, as Nepal headed toward the finalization of its new constitution, Nepal-India relations began to sour. Bilateral relations reached their low ebb when Nepal promulgated its constitution in fall 2015, which resulted in the unofficial blockade. Afterward, Modi lost all the goodwill in Nepal that he had earned during his previous visits. Now Modi is struggling to restore his image.

Modi also seems to think that India’s bilateral relationship with Nepal could be further extended under a strong government led by Oli. Oli, who commands the support of two-thirds of lawmakers in Nepal’s parliament, is capable of making tough decisions. With strong governments in both countries, now is an appropriate time to resolve some of the outstanding bilateral issues that have been pending for a long time.

There are also some similarities between the two leaders. Both put economic development as their priority; both define themselves as nationalist leaders; and both are powerful prime ministers with strong command in their respective parliaments. There are dozens of longstanding bilateral issues between two countries. Modi and Oli held intensive discussions on these points, such as minimizing Nepal’s trade deficit with India, the exchange of demonetized Indian notes held by Nepali citizens, resolving issues related to border management, providing more air routes to Nepal, and resolving flooding issues.

Strong willpower at the top political level of both countries could be instrumental to resolving such long-standing pending issues. The settlement of those issues will decide the future direction of Nepal-India relations. But Nepal is not pinning all its hopes on India. After a series of engagement with India, Oli informed Nepal’s parliament on May 13 that he will soon visit China.  Published the diplomat

2.8. Nepal and India: Mending Fences

With Indian Minister for External Affair Sushma Swaraj’s sudden visit to Kathmandu on February 1-2, 2018 there are signs of a rapprochement between Nepal’s newly elected Left Alliance and New Delhi.

For the Communist Party of Nepal (Unifed Marxist-Leninist) (CPN-UML) leader (and presumptive prime minister in the new coalition government) K.P. Oli, a friendly relationship with India is must. Two-thirds of Nepal’s trade is with India; the country is heavily dependent on its larger neighbor to meet its everyday needs. For India, it is necessary to build cordial relation with the new government in Nepal to minimize growing Chinese influence in Nepal and protect its interest.

Swaraj’s visit was first step toward rapprochement. As the first high-level foreign guest to visit Nepal after the successful conclusion of three levels of elections — local, provincial, and federal — Swaraj traveled to Kathmandu to formally congratulate the Left Alliance for its impressive victory in the national parliament polls.

Soon after Swaraj landed in Kathmandu on the afternoon of February 1, 2018 she and Oli held a one-on-one meeting to share their respective concerns about bilateral relations. Swaraj conveyed a message dispatched by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Oli. According to CPN-UML leaders, Swaraj assured Oli that India is ready to support and work with the new government in Kathmandu. Oli, whose relationship with India hit a low point during his previous tenure as prime minister in 2015, conveyed the message to New Delhi that he is ready to maintain cordial relations.

Swaraj also held a one-on-one meeting with Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center) Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal (commonly known as Prachanda), who will serve as coalition partner with the CPN-UML-led government. She assured Indian support for the new government.

Swaraj’s visit took place at a time when there are reports that New Delhi is upset over the Left Alliance’s victory. There are fears in India that the new government in Kathmandu will be instrumental for China to further increase its influence in Nepal.

Indian political leadership seems to have realized that engagement with Oli and the Left Alliance is a must to secure its interest in Nepal — simply because the Left Alliance is not going anywhere in the near future. After two rounds of telephone conversations with Oli, Modi decided to send Swaraj to Kathmandu with a message that New Delhi respects the verdict of Nepali people, and is willing to work closely with the new government. As the largest democracy in the world, India might have decided that it should welcome the successful democratic exercise in Nepal by sending a high-level dignitary.

Amid speculations that the Left Alliance government led by Oli will tilt toward China, Oli tried to assure New Delhi that his new government will maintain cordial relations with India and addresses its genuine security concerns. Sending a letter to Modi on India’s Republic Day, Oli assured Modi that he is keen to work with his Indian counterpart on bilateral issues. “As one of the recently elected people’s representatives and leader of largest party in federal parliament, I am eager to work with Excellency and your government for the better of our two countries [all sic],” Oli said in his letter to Modi.

India-Nepal relations hit a new low in 2015, under Oli’s government, when India voiced concerns over Nepal’s then-newly promulgated constitution and instituted an unofficial blockade that prevented crucial supplies from entering the country. Oli, who was then leading the government, vehemently criticized the blockade and there was huge support in Nepal for his stance. Oli also signed a trade and transit agreement with China with the goal of ending India’s monopoly over Nepal’s supply of daily essentials. After this, the Indian establishment always blamed Oli for playing the “China card” and creating anti-Indian sentiments in Nepal.

Now, some Left Alliance leaders are publicly saying that India is trying to split the political alliance and prevent Oli from becoming prime minister. These leaders believe that India is pushing Maoist chairman Prachanda as the new prime minister. Prachanda has also publicly confessed that the Nepali Congress, which received the second-most seats in the federal parliament, is offering him the prime ministerial position if he agrees to break the alliance with CPN-UML.

By sending its foreign minister to Nepal, India also provided a symbolic message to China that despite the victory of the Left Alliance, New Delhi still enjoys cordial relation with Nepal. After the federal elections, Beijing was upbeat, believing that the results would be helpful to advance its influence in Nepal.

After the election, Modi called Oli two times with a message that New Delhi is keen to work with Nepal’s future government. The Indian prime minister also stated that he is eager to welcome Oli in New Delhi. Oli is expected to visit India first — before China — after becoming prime minister.

Oli is expecting Modi to visit Nepal even before he visits India as prime minster. In their telephone conversation, Oli invited Modi on a pilgrimage tour of religious sites Janakpur, Muktinath, and Lumbini in Nepal. In 2014, during his last visit to Nepal, Modi had expressed an interest in visiting those places but the tour was abruptly canceled at the eleventh hour without explanation. Many took this as a turning point in Nepal-India relations; the relationship began to deteriorate from that point.

With Swaraj’s visit, there are renewed hopes of establishing a relationship at the top political level. In his telephone conversation with Modi, Oli expressed a desire to engage with political leadership on bilateral issues, with a view that engagement only at the bureaucratic level would not bear fruit. That is why India sent its foreign minister as a special envoy to Nepal instead of the foreign secretary or other top officials.

Swaraj’s trip signals that both sides have realized their past mistakes and are ready to build cordial relations. Despite this, India’s desire to minimize Chinese influence in Nepal after the formation of the Left Alliance is unlikely to be fulfilled because Oli seems determined to implement past agreements signed with China and sign new projects under the Belt and Road Initiative.   Published in The diplomat: 2018 February

2.9. Turmoil in Nepal-India Relations

Strained Nepal-India relations, which looked to be heading toward a thaw, faced another jolt earlier this month. The Nepali government abruptly canceled President Bidya Devi Bhandari’s first trip to Delhi, followed by the decision to recall Nepal’s ambassador to India, Deep Kumar Upadhyay. India has been criticized for its alleged involvement in the attempts made by some parties to topple the incumbent government in Nepal.

Following unexpected moves by Nepal’s government, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi reportedly has decided to boycott the International Buddhist Conference that is scheduled to take place from May 19-20 in Kathmandu, 2016.

After Prime Minister KP Oli visited Delhi in February, Nepal-India relations, which have been tense since Nepal adopted a new constitution in September last year, were heading toward a thaw. The Eminent Persons’ Group (EPG), a mechanism formed by both countries, was set to begin reviewing the state of Nepal-India relations and suggest ways to normalize ties. The smooth supply of day-to-day needs from the Indian side has resumed after last fall’s economic embargo.

But Nepal’s recent decisions to cancel the president’s India trip and recall its envoy to Delhi created a crisis of confidence between two countries. Oli apparently believes that India was directly involved in the attempts made to topple his government in the first week of May.

Senior leaders of the ruling coalition government who are close to Oli have told the media that India tried to oust their government. “India tried to topple the government, forcing the main opposition party Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba to take the lead in the process,” said Bamdev Gautam, a senior leader of the ruling CPN-UML, in an interview with Kantipur Daily, the largest selling Nepali-language daily.

Ambassador Upadhyay, a senior leader of Nepali Congress, has been blamed for lobbying the Indian establishment to topple the government. However, Upadhyay dismissed the accusations, saying that he does not have the capacity to topple or form the government. India’s ambassador to Nepal, Ranjit Rae, has also been accused of being involved in the conspiracy to oust the coalition government of left parties, which is often portrayed as an anti-India coalition.

Last week, there were some media reports that Nepal would expel the Indian ambassador for his alleged involvement in the internal affairs of Nepal. Nepal’s government has denounced those reports. “Some media speculation regarding [the] Nepali government mulling expulsion of Indian Ambassador Rae is baseless and is aimed at damaging Nepal-India relations,” said Minister for Foreign Affairs Kamal Thapa.

There is an agreement among political parties in Nepal that India’s policy of “micromanaging” its smaller neighbor should not be tolerated. Similarly, all parties in Nepal protested India’s tactical support to the border blockade launched by Madhesh-based parties last year.

However, the present government’s diplomatic dealings have been problematic, especially after the promulgation of the constitution last year. Government officials are straining to show off their nationalist credentials, provoking issues related to relations with neighboring countries.

The CPN-UML-led current government is dominated by leftist and rightists parties—UCPN (Maoist), CPN-ML, Rastriya Janamoarcha, and Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal among others—who try to portray themselves as nationalist forces by criticizing India. Even government ministers have been making provocative statements, saying that India is trying to split Nepal’s southern belt.

Oli believes that India did not want Nepal to form a government under his leadership. He is also of the view that India is not supportive of his government, so he is indulging in anti-Indian rhetoric to earn nationalist credentials. India, on the other hand, believes that the current government is working to create anti-Indian sentiment in Nepal. Ironically, Oli had been portrayed as a pro-Indian leader over the previous 25 years.

In the third week of February, Oli visited India. At the time, the prime minister claimed that the misunderstanding between the two countries had been cleared after his visit. However, in a sign that all was not well, Nepal and India failed to come up with a joint press statement after India refused to welcome Nepal’s constitution.

The protests of Madhesh-based parties over the promulgation of Nepal’s new constitution is another issue that is influencing Nepal-India relations. Ethnic groups are protesting in the southern belt, bordering India, demanding the government in Nepal address their concerns about the demarcation of electoral constituencies. India is pressing Nepali parties to address the concerns of Madhesh-based groups. Oli and his cabinet ministers believe that India is interfering in Nepal’s internal issues by providing tactical support to protesters.

The problem is that Oli seems more interested in political gain than truly forging national unity. Oli has not invested the time and energy to reach out to opposition parties and Madhesh-based groups in order to create an environment of implementing the constitution.

Following pressure from opposition parties, Nepal adopted amendments to the constitution, partially fulfilling the protesters’ demands. Then, a day before his visit to India, Oli formed a political mechanism led by the deputy prime minister and the minister for foreign affairs to address the remaining demands. The mechanism was made in a hurry to give the impression to the Indian political leadership that Oli was serious about resolving the Madhesh crisis. Since he returned from his India visit, there has not been even a single round of negotiation between the government mechanism and Madhesh-based parties.

There are just 20 months left to fully implement Nepal’s constitution, otherwise there will be another constitutional crisis. In this period Nepal will have to hold local, provincial and national elections, which is a very tough job. It won’t be possible without unification among the parties.

In this sense, Nepal’s government is failing to handle both domestic and external issues properly, which is pushing the country toward crisis. Instead of taking a strong and united balancing approach, leaders are providing India and China with room to play in the country’s internal political affairs. In addition to the reports that India tried to topple the government, it’s rumored that China worked hard to keep the current coalition intact.  The lack of unity among Nepal’s domestic forces means that diplomacy is becoming a tool for parties to gain domestic political strength.  The diplomat \Published date May 14, 2016

2.10. Why India ditched Madhes

India imposed a nearly five-month-long border blockade following the promulgation of the new Nepali constitution on 20 September 2015. India was unhappy that it was not consulted and that Kathmandu was ignoring the demands of Madhes-based parties.

Three years on, two Madhes-based parties, namely Rastriya Janata Party-Nepal (RJP-N) and Federal Socialist Party-Nepal (FSP-N), are demanding another amendment to the constitution. But India is no longer backing the agenda of the Madhes-based parties, at least not publicly. Observers point at a few reasons behind India’s silence. One, its focus now is on minimizing China’s influence in Nepal by taking Kathmandu into confidence.

Two, there is no unity among the Madhes-based parties and the absence of a towering figure capable of triggering and leading a popular movement in Madhes. During the local elections in 2017, there was a clear split among Madhes-based parties. Their differences remain; whereas FSPN Chairman Upendra Yadav is part of the Oli govern­ment, RJPN leaders are not. Three, there are insufficient numbers in parliament to pass a constitution amendment bill and the likelihood of another popular movement in Madhes is low.

 However, Amresh Singh, a Nepali Congress lawmaker, has a different take. He says India imposed the blockade because of its concern over Nepal’s status as a Hindu state, not over the Madhesi issue.

“The Indians overreacted. The Madhes movement was going on at the time, so they jumped on the bandwagon. But after a few weeks, they realized that the ruling hill elites were displeased, so they lift­ed the blockade and started deal­ing with the Nepal government,” he says.

In a recent interview with APEX, Constantino Xavier, a fellow in For­eign Policy Studies at Brookings India and an experienced Nepal hand, had argued that the salience of the Madhes issue in Nepal-India relations has gone down. “You see general statements about inclusive­ness and diversity, but there are no prescriptive statements India used in 2015/2016 about what Nepal should be doing in terms of its con­stitutional and political arrange­ments,” he said.

But says a senior Nepali leader who worked on constitution-draft­ing, “After a rapprochement with Kathmandu, India dropped the Mad­hes agenda. But if differences with Kathmandu resurface, Delhi will not hesitate to bring up the agenda to put pressure on Kathmandu.”

2.11 Is Madhes just a card for India?

  When Nepal promulgated a new constitution on 20 September 2015, India imposed a blockade to put pressure on Kathmandu to fulfill the demands of Madhes-based parties. Follow­ing the pressure, some of those demands were addressed through an amendment to the constitution.

Three years after the blockade, two Madhes-based parties, namely Rastriya Janata Party-Nepal (RJP-N) and Federal Socialist Party-Nepal (FSP-N), are demanding another amendment to the constitution. But India is no longer backing their agenda, at least not publicly. There was a time when Nepal had to pres­ent a written roadmap on how it was going to address the demands of the Madhes-based parties, but that’s no longer the case today.

Observers point at a few rea­sons behind India’s silence on the demands of the Madhes-based par­ties. First, its focus now is on mini­mizing China’s influence in Nepal by taking Kathmandu into confidence. Mainly after the formation of a strong government led by the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) Chairman KP Sharma Oli, India invested its time and energy persuading Oli to check China’s influence.

Sometime after the blockade, foreign policy observers believe, it dawned on India that if it antago­nizes Kathmandu, China will make further inroads into Nepal. After that, India started playing down the Madhes agenda in an attempt to appease Kathmandu so as to reduce Chinese influence in Nepal.

Despite some rhetoric to the con­trary, Oli is not ready to amend the constitution. India does not want to make the Madhes issue a cause of friction with the Oli government. “India can neither give up the agenda of the Madhes-based parties nor speak strongly in favor of them,” says a Nepali diplomat who has been actively engaged in Nepal-India deal­ings in recent times, requesting ano­nymity, as he cannot speak publicly given his official position.

Come as one

The second reason behind India’s silence is the lack of unity among the Madhes-based parties and the absence of a towering figure capable of triggering and leading a popular movement in Madhes. During the local elections in 2017, there was a clear split among Madhes-based parties. Their differences remain; whereas FSPN Chairman Upendra Yadav is part of the Oli government, RJPN leaders are not. “India, for a long time, has been telling the Madhes-based parties to unite but since that’s not happening, India itself seems confused about their demands,” says the diplomat.

The third reason is insufficient numbers in parliament to pass a constitution amendment bill and the low likelihood of another popu­lar movement in Madhes. The NCP has a two-thirds major­ity in the parliament but Prime Minister Oli is not ready to amend the constitution—at least for now. Although his party Co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal appears to have a soft spot for the demands of the Madhes-based par­ties, he is not in a posi­tion to make important decisions by himself.

Yet another reason is that after the blockade, which fueled anti-Indian sentiments in Nepal, there were strong views within India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that India should not view Nepal through a Madhes prism. Some BJP leaders strongly advised Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj that India’s policy on Nepal take into con­sideration various factors and not just the Madhes. They were of the view that if India backs the Madhes-based parties, and thus helps derail the local polls, its com­mitment to democracy would be questioned.

However, Amresh Singh, a Nepali Congress lawmaker, has a differ­ent take. He says India imposed the blockade because of its concern over Nepal’s status as a Hindu state, not over the Madhesi issue. “The Indians overreacted. The Madhes movement was going on at the time, so they jumped on the bandwagon. But after a few weeks, they realized that the ruling hill elites were displeased, so they lifted the blockade and started dealing with the Nepal government and the ruling elites,” he says.

Dropping Madhes

“The then Indian Ambassador to Nepal Ranjit Rae was tasked with appeasing the ruling elites. This pol­icy was initiated by the RSS [Rash­triya Swayamsevak Sangh]. By way of justification, India blamed the leaders of the Madhes-based parties, saying they were divided, corrupt and visionless.”

A senior leader who worked on constitution-drafting says, “After a rapprochement with Kath­mandu, India dropped the Madhes agenda. But if differences with Kath­mandu resurface, New Delhi will not hesitate to bring up the agenda to put pressure on Kathmandu,” says the leader.

There is a consensus across the political spectrum in Nepal that valid demands of the Madhes-based parties should be addressed to stem the rise of extremist forces in Madhes. To understand how India gradually changed its position on Madhes, it is necessary to analyze the Indian position and policy over the last decade.

 India had played a mediating role during the Madhes movement in 2008. The then Indian Ambassador to Nepal Shiva Shankar Mukherjee had helped strike an agreement between then Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and the Mad­hes-based parties. India’s role at that time was interpreted as that of an external guarantor. During the con­stitution-drafting period from 2009 to 2015, India was continuously backing the demands of the Mad­hes-based parties. Immediately after the constitution was promulgated in September 2015, India imposed a blockade on Nepal as a punishment for not addressing those demands. During the blockade, which lasted almost five months, India’s position was loud and clear: amend the con­stitution to address the demands of the Madhes-based parties.

After the blockade, the issue of constitution amendment featured prominently in every Nepali prime minister’s visit to Delhi. Due to dif­ferences over this topic, no joint press statement was issued during KP Oli’s visit to India in 2016. Oli insisted that India should welcome Nepal’s constitution and the issue of Madhes-based parties should not be incorporated in the joint statement. India disagreed.

Sparing Dahal’s blushes

India started softening its position after Pushpa Kamal Dahal, in alli­ance with the Nepali Congress, came to power in 2016. During Dahal’s visit to Delhi, the Madhes-based parties’ issue was presented in a general way in that it was the Nepal government’s duty to bring all sec­tions of society on board. This was in contrast to the past tradition of India issuing a prescriptive state­ment urging Nepal to specifically address the demands of the Mad­hes-based parties.

But even until the local elections in 2017, India was still pressing Dahal to go for polls only after addressing the demands of the Madhes-based parties. However, Dahal succeeded in convincing India that the demands cannot be addressed as they lacked enough parliamentary support. A week before the announcement of the local polls, Dahal sent his dep­uty Narayan Kaji Shrestha to Delhi with a message that the date of the first phase of the polls would be announced. Shrestha made a case in front of Indian leaders and offi­cials that there was no other option. Still India wasn’t fully convinced. Later when Sher Bahadur Deuba visited Delhi as a prime minister, he expressed a commitment to amend the constitution, which drew criti­cism in Nepal.

At the same time, the Mad­hes-based parties were also divided on whether to contest the local polls. (They did ultimately.) Indian Ambassador Manjeev Singh Puri reportedly urged the Madhes-based parties to drop their agenda of a con­stitution amendment and contest the elections. If India had insisted on amending the statute by addressing the Madhes-based parties’ demands, the local elections would not have been possible. In that case, Dahal would have had to step down, pav­ing Oli’s path to power—an outcome India wanted to avoid. The Mad­hes-based parties, however, felt betrayed by India when it did not back their agenda just before the local elections.

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