New Delhi . Nepal is a sovereign state, but being a land locked country that is highly dependent on other countries for its sustainability, it has always struggled hard to maintain a balance between strong powers in its neighborhood. The landslide victory of PM Kadga Prasad Oli as the collated representative of NCP during the 2017 elections and political stability thereafter has brought about a sense of independent decision making power and non-aligned approach in the government. This has also given rise to an assertive leader in Nepal, who takes strong stand over issues of national interest, especially supported by his nationalist discourse that appeals the larger masses.
Nepal has been prudent in its relationship with India, especially since PM Oli came to power with massive victory. It was clearly articulated in Oli’s statement of not letting any foreign power to interfere in its affairs; while maintaining the tricky balance of relationship with both the close neighbors – India and China. However, some Nepali scholars are of the opinion that Nepal’s strategy needs to be guided by “pragmatism, and not by petulant stubbornness”.
Discontent and Unhappiness of Nepal
Multiple layers of issues have overshadowed the current India-Nepal relationship. The 2015 economic blockade blowing the anti-India sentiments had left deep scars in the minds of the Nepalese, whereby the entire goodwill of cultural closeness and traditional linkages with India was jolted. During the recent visit of Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. S Jaishankar to Nepal, who was highly criticized of his role in the 2015 protests in Terai region and the related blockade, reverberated the nerves of many Nepalese with hashtags on twitter
Besides, Pakistan’s closeness and calls in support of India-Pakistan harmonious relations in Nepal reflected the inclination of Nepalese towards Pakistan. The lack of SAARC meeting with Nepal as the Chair has also resulted in the unhappiness of Nepalese government towards India and the undercurrent of sympathetic approach towards Pakistan has been brewing for some time. Many in Nepal have always advocated support for Kashmir as they see the case of Sikkim to be the destiny of Nepal under Indian rule, though none of the evidences suffice these propositions as Kashmir, Sikkim, and Nepal are all three different cases.
The other area of uneasiness of the Nepalese has been the revision of the 1950 India-Nepal friendship Treaty. Many see the exercise of formation of Eminent Persons Group (EPG) and its pending report as a matter of serious concern. As the report has not yet been ratified by the governments of both countries, there are multiple forces demanding to make the report public. However, rumors in Nepal point to Nepalese EPG member trading the contents of the report with the Chinese for around one million NRs and the core reason for non-acceptance by the Indian authorities. No one really knows the truth behind such stories, however, Jaishankar during his visit made clear that Indian PM Narendra Modi will accept the report at an opportune time. In addition, there are issues of hydropower, energy, water related issues, border management etc.
Visit Opens Multiple Areas of Cooperation
Jaishankar visited Nepal from August 21 to 22, 2019 mainly to participate in the 5th Joint Commission Meeting between India and Nepal. He was received by Nepal’s Foreign Secretary Shankar Das Bairagi, Nepal’s Ambassador to India Nilamber Acharya and Indian Ambassador to Nepal Manjeev Singh Puri. The objective of the meeting cited was to “take stock of the entire gamut of bilateral relationship,” as stated in a tweet by the External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar.
Jaishankar in his tweet had stated that he has “identified priority areas of cooperation”. During his visit, the Department of Food Technology and Quality Control of Nepal and Food Safety and Standards Authority of India signed a memorandum of understanding on food safety standards. Jaishakar also handed over cheques of Indian government amounting to Rs 3.74 billion for two projects. He handed over one cheque of NRs 2.45 billion towards reimbursement to the Nepal government’s for post-earthquake housing reconstruction in Nuwakot and Gorkha districts. Another cheque of NRs 1.29 billion was given towards strengthening road infrastructure in the Tarai region of Nepal, which was a part of the Government of India’s commitment of INR 500 crore towards strengthening road infrastructure in the Terai Region. Indian Embassy further clarified that four road packages are ready for inauguration. Hence, connectivity and development of Nepal had been the bottomline of the visit.
Enhanced Consciousness of Nepal as a Military Alliance
India-Nepal not only share border and historical as well as cultural linkages, but Indian government has committed to providing security to the land-locked country. However, with the changing geo-political and geo-economic scenario of the globe, Nepal has become conscious of its position in the region. While the strategic scenario in the southern side is of the US led Indo-Pacific paradigm, Nepal has already boarded the Chinese train with signing of the Belt and Road initiative. Hence, many scholars point to the greater closeness of Nepal towards China, challenging the security scenario of India in the region.
It is interesting to note that soon after Jaishankar’s visit, Nepal held a joint military exercise in Kathmandu with the Chinese PLA. The two-week exercise called Sagarmatha Friendship Joint Training that started on August 28, 2019 is projected to focus on issues relating to counter-terrorism and disaster management, even though Nepal has not fully recognized Pakistan as a state harboring terrorism. A PLA team of 22 member delegation along with a 22 member Nepalese delegation participated in the joint exercise is conducted at No. 10 Brigade of NA at Maharajgunj and will also be held in Nagarkot for few days. The first exercise was held in April 2017 in Chengdu, China.
End of last year, during Nepalese Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ishwor Pokhrel’s visit to China, an understanding was reached for China providing assistance of NRs 2.5 billion (RMB 150 million) to Nepalese Army over the next five years. This is an increase from the RMB 100 million granted in 2017. Chinese President has articulated the desire to coax Nepal to join as alliance partner for its military clout in the region. Yet, Jaishankar’s visit and the optimism in the air gives a sense of hope and rebuilds the trust of the Nepalese to deal with India on an equal footing. For Nepal, India has been a more trusted partner for decades, but till now the same equal footing relationship has not been extended by the Chinese. It is now time for the Nepalese leaders to rethink the future coarse of the bonding that entails a shift from the past to rebuild the future.
Dr. Geeta Kochhar Jaiswal, Assistant Professor (Chinese), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.