Nepal-India Relations: Prime Minister Oli’s India Visit

Murari Sharma

Nepali Prime Minister KP Oli’s is visiting India from 19 February 2016, and the government of Nepal and the premier’s party, the Communist Party of Nepal (UML) have tried their utmost to project the visit as extraordinarily successful. In many ways, it is a fruitful visit. However, since the main contentious issues were not even seriously discussed, let alone resolved, the success could prove deceptive and short-lived.

Although Oli had promised not to sign any agreement or treaty, he has already broken his promise by signing seven agreements. These accords relate to importing Indian electricity into Nepal, ensuring Nepal’s access to the Bisakhapattanam port, using part of the stand-by assistance for reconstruction of infrastructure damaged by the earthquakes, constructing border area roads in Nepal, opening of the transit corridor from Kakarbhitta to Banglabandh in Bangladesh through India, creating a joint expert group of foreign policy, and fostering cooperation between the National Academy of Arts and Literature of Nepal with its counterpart in India.

Since all these issues of agreement have been under discussion for some time, it might be argued with some justification that they are not new. However, high level visits seldom break a new ground; they only ink, or witness the inking in this case, that what has already been  finalized at the lower level. Obviously, nothing brand new happens at top-level visits between two countries.

Evidently, all these accords cover important areas of bilateral cooperation and should be welcomed. Nonetheless, some of these accords might have been repetitive, some may turn ephemeral,  and some outright deceptive and counterproductive in outcome. Let me start with the repetitive ones. The agreement on the border roads and the use of Bisakhapattanam port are simply repetitive, for they had already been agreed.

The happiness about opening of the Kakarbhitta-Banglabandh corridor could prove ephemeral. At a time when India has just lifted its 5-month partial economic embargo on its border with Nepal, it would be premature, even misplaced, to assume that New Delhi would not impose obstructions on this corridor whenever it deems right. What is good for the goose could be good for the gander.

The agreements on the power supply and border roads could prove deceptive and counterproductive for Nepal.  The power supply agreement, under which India will supply 600 MW electricity to Nepal in three phases, is outright deceptive and counterproductive. Faced with the Indian embargo, Oli had promised to reduce Nepal’s economic dependence on India, not increase it, but that is what exactly he had done with this agreement.

Oli is not alone in this crime against Nepal. One democratic government after another has reversed the gains made in trade diversification under the much-vilified Kings Mahendra and Birendra and increased Nepal’s economic independence on India, the dependence New Delhi has used to punish Nepal — in 1969, in 1989-90 and in 20015-16. Yet, Nepali leaders have not become wiser by half; rather they have increased the dependence further.

For instance, According to the Nepal Rastra Bank, Nepal relied on India for 24.01 percent of its import needs in the 1980s, 22.39 percent in the 1990s, and 58.06 percent in 2000s. This additional electricity import from India will further increase Nepal’s reliance on India for the supply of this vital source of energy. That means when India imposes economic blockade next time for some reason, the pain for Nepal is going to be much deeper and more far-reaching by that much.

In no other country in the world other than in Nepal have I witnessed political leaders not learning from their past mistakes. A wiser course would have been to stress the construction of the pending projects between the two countries and developing new sources of energy within Nepal to reduce its economic dependence on India. But the river flowed in the opposite direction, sadly.

Before addressing the issue of the border roads, let me take you to the proposal of a friendly country to help renovate and rejuvenate the Pashupati Area. Girija Prasad Koirala was prime minister at the time. Koirala feared that involving foreign money at the center of Nepali faith would be against Nepal’s vital interest, rejected the offer, and ordered the concerned officials to carry out the project with internal resources,

Undoubtedly, the Nepal-India border area needs better transportation facilities. Sometimes in some places, border areas are developed jointly and border fences are removed as in the European Union. At other times and other places, countries sharing the border also build fences to protect themselves. Consider the fences between the United States and Mexico, between Israel and Palestinian territories, between India and Bangladesh. It is a matter of immigration and security threats.

The Nepal-India border is open from where citizens of both countries come and go freely. But such freedom is not and should not be available for security personnel on their duty. However, every year, Indian security forces cross the common border without prior information to the Nepali side in the name of hot pursuit and apprehend people of their interest deep inside the Nepali territory. While we should maintain best of relations with India, we must also have the confidence to tell our friend where the border is and how it should be respected.

In this context, the government of Nepal would have done well if it had invested its own resources to build the border roads at a time when India is aggressively trying to push its national security agenda on Nepal. God forbid, this road project will not undermine Nepal’s independence further.

What is more, it should be appreciated that India went out of the way to welcome Oli for a state visit. But it has not changed the fact New Delhi is still interfering in Nepal’s internal affairs. Even though Oli told the press that the misunderstanding that cased the economic embargo has been cleared, there is no indication that the issue of blockade was even discussed. What is however clear is this: India continues to insist that Kathmandu should accommodate the demand of Madheshi parties regardless of whether or not it is acceptable to other parties and population groups.

Madheshi parties have demanded that no part of the plains should be lumped with any hill state, and the district under dispute are Sunsari, Morang, Jhapa, Kailai and Kanchanpur. The people of this districts do not want to be part of any plain state, and it makes  the Madheshi demand nearly impossible to fulfill.

For the cynics, this demand is not only of Madheshi parties also but of India and the lifting of the Indian economic embargo is a tactical move to facilitate Oli’s visit. If Oli or his successor cannot please India, the blockade could be reimposed immediately or after a while. Besides, there are unresolved border disputes, particularly at Kalapani and Susta, and the much-awaited revision in the he 1950 treaty, among others.

Nepal must maintain friendly and cooperative relations with India as best as it can, but without compromising its vital national interest. It should understand that each country in the world, including India, does so. The only way Nepal can ensure its political and economic independence is by diversifying trade, reducing its reliance on any particular country, and developing its own resources and capacity. Oli’s India visit seems to have failed this test.

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Nepal and India at crossroads

Murari Sharma

Nepali Prime Minister KP Oli will be out on a visit to India on February 19, 2016. The trip was in limbo for some time because of the Indian economic embargo against Nepal. Since all border points have eased up from yesterday, the visit has been announced. It is good news, but it might prove too premature to celebrate it.

For starters, India had imposed the undeclared blockade at the end of September 2015, soon after Nepal promulgated its new constitution, making the Nepalis immeasurably miserable. No cooking gas, no petrol, no disel. It was furious because Nepali leaders had refused to postpone the promulgation of the statute until the small Madheshi regional parties signed on. India had made its demand known by inviting Nepal leaders to New Delhi and by sending its foreign secretary to Kathmandu.

However, Nepali leaders waited only for thee days and approved the constitution. India imposed the sanctions in revenge. Well founded or not, Kathmandu feared that New Delhi was plotting to get the second Constituent Assembly (CA) dissolved, because it had fewer members from the Madheshi parties than in the first CA, hoping that these parties would secure more seats in the third CA and press their demand more forcefully.

Indeed, India cares about the Madheshis in Nepal, who have nuptial and cultural ties in its border states. However, as Lord Palmerstone has said: Countries have no permanent friends; they only have permanent interests. India has three strategic, permanent interests in Nepal.

First, India wishes to integrate Nepal more closely in its security umbrella to prevent its northern neighbor from veering off towards China, its main rival and competitor. Second, it wants to monopolize the use of Nepal’s abundant water resources to meet its ever-growing irrigation and energy needs. Third, India would like to see the Madheshi province(s), which will be created under the federal constitution, have a near complete control over Nepal’s access to it and the majority members in the federal parliament come from there so that it does not have to use direct coercion on Kathmandu to meets its first two objectives.

Evidently, the Madheshi parties share the third Indian strategic interest. They have demanded, among other things, proportional representation in all branches of government, allocation of parliamentary constituencies based on population only, and one province for the entire Terai under the new federal constitution.  Nepali leaders agreed on the first two demands but not on the third, and Madheshi leaders from the regional parties did not compromise without the third. So the constitution was approved when these Madheshi parties boycotted the CA.

Although India had claimed that Madheshi parties of Nepal had obstructed the border points, it was only true by half. These parties had picketed less than half of the 22 border points, but India had imposed restrictions on all points. When the international community expressed deep concerns about a humanitarian crisis brewing up due to the blockade so soon after the devastating earthquakes in April and May 2015, India began to send about a third of the petroleum products necessary for Nepal.

Considering the demand of the Madheshi regional parties and India, Nepal recently amended the constitution to accommodate the first two demands and committed to find agreement on the third. But New Delhi refused to lift the embargo. When Prime Minister Oli indicated that, if the blockade was not lifted quickly, he could first visit Beijing. Other Nepali officials made it clear that preparations were being made to sign agreements with China on petroleum products, new transit points, and new road and railway connections.

India does not want Nepal to get any closer to China, and it takes it as an insult if a Nepali prime minister visits Beijing before New Delhi.

These developments in Nepal triggered a barrage of criticism of the Modi government in India. The upper house of parliament even formally discussed the issue. There, some expressed concerns about the hardships facing the Nepali people and India being viewed negatively, others criticized Modi for letting China increase its influence in Nepal.

Perhaps because of these developments, India recently invited the Madheshi party leaders to New Delhi for consultation. It appears that Indian officials told these leaders to hold their fire and let the obstructed border points open. Suddenly from yesterday, even the Birguanj-Raxaul border, from where more than 60 percent fuel is imported, has been working normally.

It would be inane to believe that India would abandon its vital interests. I hope I am proven wrong, but I think India will corner Oli in New Delhi to sign an agreement or at least make a firm commitment to fulfill its strategic interests in Nepal to receive its blessings. If he refuses to comply, Oli will have to come back prepared to lose his premiership or face the re-imposed economic sanctions.  So hold back your celebration.