A more perfect reunion

An Indian prime minister visited Nepal after a hiatus of nearly 17 years. During this intervening period, six head of states and nine prime ministerial visits took place from the Nepali side, which clearly showed the one sided nature of this relationship. People of Nepal want to be treated as equals, like any other sovereign country. The intangible, while dealing with Nepal are ‘win the trust of the people of that country’ and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) region in particular. The intangible in today’s discerning world are not won by economic actions alone but by other actions as well.

‘For India, Nepalese nationals have not shied away from shedding blood’, Narendra Modi said. Amid thumping of desks and applause all round, Modi went on to quote Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw to support his point. ‘If a soldier says he is not afraid of death, he is either lying or he is a Gorkha.’ Modi also reunited his foster son Jeet Bahadur with his family in Nepal that made headlines.

The ground work for this successful visit was set by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, just a week prior to Modi’s visit. Giving priority to SAARC, the Modi-led government has started on a round of hectic political activity. Swaraj’s visit to Nepal laid a good foundation as she emphasised at every meeting that India’s new government was determined to take the relationship with Nepal to a new level. The high light of her visit was signing the 26-point understanding between India and Nepal. Did she earn enough trust in a country where the perceived ‘Indian high-handedness’ is a matter of distaste? Both Modi and Sushma were able to build positive atmosphere and goodwill, but they still have to walk their talk.

The Indian stock in Nepal is rather peculiar, at Kathmandu, the capital, there is a degree of anti- India feeling among the Nepali elite while the country side has deep feeling for India due to the large number of soldiers who return home from the Gorkha units of Indian Army. Spending the better part of their youth taking pride in their service for India they are firmly nationalist about India, but the Indian diplomatic and political class have not been able to encash on the same.

The borders again have the Madhesi people, who are of Indian origin but citizens of Nepal, whom the Nepalese distrust for being pro Indian. The two countries have deep cultural and religious ties, yet with so many similarities there is a feeling of distrust caused by Indian high-handedness. It was this mistrust built up by years of neglect that Swaraj’s visit and Modi’s government is trying to clear.

Years of neglect cannot be whisked away with the stroke of a pen but nevertheless a good beginning has been made.

The core of the issue is China’s assertiveness towards Nepal which India wants to counter. India and Nepal have excellent people to people contact yet poor government to government understanding.

This needs to be corrected. One good step in this regard was reactivation of Nepal-India Joint Commission which held its 3rd meeting in Kathmandu recently. The two PM’s directed their respective authorities to take up implementation of the decisions taken during the Joint Commission meeting. The issues which fit into a wide range are political cooperation, trade and transit, development cooperation, water resources, earlier treaties and agreements including the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship, mutual security and boundary issues. The two PMs expressed satisfaction at the state of bilateral relations and committed to work together to take relations and cooperation to a new height.

The other tangibles of the meeting were inking three pacts, one on providing iodate salt, amending Articles 17 and 18 of the Pancheshwar project and the third on cooperation between Doordashran and Nepal television. Modi also had a HIT formula, representing Highways, Information Technology ways, and Trans ways. He also announced a soft loan of $1 billion.

Modi, in his speech, made it clear that he was in favour of Nepal’s constitution but staying away from the nitty-gritty of Nepal’s political class who use leverage of India against political foes is going to be tough. ‘India has no favourites in Nepal’, is the latest mantra.

India needs to address the larger political picture and must engage only with the legitimate government in Nepal for bilateral cooperation and focus on doable deliveries to alter public perception in Nepal about India as a country eternally conspiring to micromanage internal politics of Nepal. Changing mindset of all, including the international community, is the biggest challenge for the Modi government. The past few years of inaction have set the Indian stock rather low. There is an often stated feeling that the Indian nation promises but does not deliver needs to be corrected. None of the projects promised have been delivered as yet.  Nepal has vast potential like our hill states tourism, hydro-power and the new found herbal potential.

The common cultural heritage and the fact that religious sites are common give a lot of shared  cultural valves. The two nations have exploited each other’s human resources as well. There is a need to bridge the gap and India, under Modi, has taken the first step. There is an urgent need for good two track diplomacy to build up the trust factor and to ensure that the political class gets a correct feedback, for the bureaucracy has called the shots for too long.

The author is a retired brigadier
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