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Resetting Indo-Nepal relations

By all accounts Narendra Modi’s Nepal visit, the first by an Indian prime minister in 17 years, has been a success. He has struck the right notes, made the right moves and has put across the Indian case without overdoing things. In 1997, when Prime Minister Inder Gujral was in Kathmandu, he told the Nepalese that they had India’s “power of attorney” to rewrite their relationship with India with whatever words they wanted. Such a document was not Gujral’s to give and made little sense in the context of the civil war that was raging in the country at the time.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Nepali counterpart Sushil Koirala during the signing ceremony at Chambers PMO, Singha Durbar in Kathmandhu, Nepal on Sunday. Pic/PTI
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Nepali counterpart Sushil Koirala during the signing ceremony at Chambers PMO, Singha Durbar in Kathmandhu, Nepal on Sunday. Pic/PTI

On the other hand, Modi has gone out of his way to tell the Nepalese political community that India is committed to a policy of non-interference in the country’s political affairs, howsoever tangled they may be. “It is not our job to interfere in your internal affairs but to assist you in the path you have chosen,” he said in a well-received speech to Nepal’s Constituent Assembly. In addition, India, a traditional donor to Nepal’s development assistance programmes has offered $1 billion line of credit to build power plants and roads.

The agenda for Indo-Nepal relations is a vast one ranging from readjusting the foundational Indo-Nepal Treaty of 1950, to living up to the enormous potential offered by the joint development of the Ganga river basin.

The occasion of a prime ministerial visit is, of course, one where nice things are said and high principles and plans outlined. However, Nepal and India are deeply bound by strategic relations of the closest kind as much a function of geography as history. In the past, India has sheltered activists protesting the rule of the king and in turn, Nepal has been used by forces adverse to India. Differences between the two countries have led to a lot of heartburn and prevented the effective exploitation of the Ganga river basin, either for irrigation and flood control or hydropower.

But in recent years, both sides have learnt to respect each other’s red lines and also understood their respective limitations. Nepalese authorities have aided their Indian counterparts to check the activities of terrorists who have often sheltered in Nepal.

There is a clear sense that the Modi visit lead to a reset of Indo-Nepal relations. The statements of Nepalese leaders across the spectrum from the monarchists to the Maoists, suggest that the moment may be now. Even Prachanda, the leader of the Nepalese Maoists expressed his view that a new chapter appeared to be opening in Nepal-India relations as a result of the visit.

The key to good India-Nepal relations rest in overcoming the problem of asymmetry in their physical, economic and geographical circumstances. Nepal is a poor, agrarian, landlocked state, while India is a vast subcontinent with a great deal of poverty, but also significant pockets of affluence. Geography, in the form of the high Himalayas, lock Nepal into India. No matter how many roads and even railroads the Chinese build to link up to Nepal, its economic orientation will remain towards India. This has been a matter of concern and some resentment in Nepal.

It is true that India has at times in the past, been an overbearing neighbour. But some of it has been overstated by Nepalese politicians for their narrow ends, after all blaming another country for your ills always plays well in the political street theatre. But in recent years, after Nepal threw out the monarchy, the Nepalese public, too, has become more aware of the situation and is not easily swayed by India-baiters, as the Nepalese Maoists learnt to their cost.

The Indo-Nepal Treaty of 1950 has been a major target of the Nepalese ire. It is thought to symbolise Nepalese inferiority to India. Under Article 5, Nepal is committed to import its arms through India. Articles 6 and 7, provide same privileges to citizens of either country in the matter of residence, ownership of property, participation in trade and commerce and movement. This enables the Nepali and Indian citizens to move freely across the border without passport or visa, live and work in either country and own property or do trade or business in either country.

This is surely a unique relationship, not even equalled by that between the US and Canada. But it generates resentment in Nepal. While it is true that literally millions of Nepalis live and work in India, there are far fewer number of Indians doing the same in Nepal because of the economic environment there.

While Article 5 has become more or less redundant and India is not particularly keen to press Nepal to acquire its arms through its territory (and therefore exercise a degree of control over them), Articles 6 and 7 are important and benefit Nepal far more than they do India. Nepali leaders often speak of rewriting the 1950 treaty, but when push comes to shove, they back off.

For this reason, Prime Minister Modi reiterated India’s willingness to review and rewrite the treaty. “My doors are open, I invite you to bring any suggestions to review the 1950 treaty, if you so want,” he declared at a banquet hosted by Nepalese Prime Minister Sushil Koirala in Kathmandu on Sunday.

The new Indian approach to Nepal, and to the South Asian region, form a core of the Modi government’s foreign and security policy. The goal is to bind them closer to India through a web of economic relationships, one which ties India’s prosperity to their growth as well. But to implement this vision, Modi needs to offer not just economic carrots, but also untangle the political issues that have bedevilled relations between India and them.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

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