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.