In 2014, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Nepal twice within a gap of six months, and after a gap of 17 years by any Indian prime minister, he seemed to be introspective. This was a departure from the way senior bureaucrats handling the relationship between the two countries conducted themselves. India is unpopular in Nepal for several reasons despite being the biggest contributor in development and need. But Modi seemed to correctly diagnose the reason for India’s unpopularity. The gap between promise and delivery in executing bilateral projects was something he promised to address. As a result, the Nepal-India Joint Commission began meetings at the foreign minister level after a gap of more than two decades, with the last one taking place in Delhi on Thursday.
Meanwhile, relations took a steep fall soon after the devastating earthquake in Nepal in April last year, especially after the promulgation of the country’s new constitution. India’s reservation and refusal to welcome the constitution and the border blockade exacerbated matters. The distrust of India grew and it pushed Nepal closer to the north. Many in the country saw the response as an impractical one. But the failure to allay Nepal’s fears was still seen as a big failure of Indian diplomacy. Interestingly, this happened during the tenure of the Modi government even though the Bharatiya Janata Party had blamed the previous UPA government for having pursued a “wrong neighbourhood policy”.
With Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal replacing K.P. Oli — the person India accused of playing the “China card” — India has expressed hope that things are back on track. The tradition of India’s heads of government and state visiting Nepal at least once during their tenure that lasted till the late 1990s has resumed. After Modi, India’s President Pranab Mukherjee is scheduled to visit Nepal and undertake a trip to the pilgrimage centres of Pashupatinath and Janakpur. The last Indian President who visited Nepal was K.R. Narayanan in 1997.
Despite the joint commission meetings, however, there is no indication that the delays in the execution of projects will cease. On the contrary, meaningless gestures are being held up as indicators of improved relations. The cabinet led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal decided on Thursday that November 2 would be a public holiday as a mark of respect for president Mukherjee. A similar honour would have been bestowed upon Chinese President Xi Jinping if he visited Nepal. But the Chinese disappointed Nepal, which was anticipating Xi to visit the country in mid-October — he chose to visit Dhaka instead. But the government’s decision on the eve of Mukherjee’s visit has backfired. There has been criticism from all sides, including from members of Dahal’s own party.
There is, however, enthusiasm about Mukherjee’s visit. He is respected by the Maoists and other political forces that preferred radical changes in Nepal about a decade ago. India had then backed the radical Maoists who had raised arms against the state. India also took the initiative to bring them into the political mainstream. “We persuaded the political parties that resorted to the gun and violence, the Maoists in Nepal, that they give up violence, participate in mainstream national political activities. They agreed, heard our political advice and now in collaboration with other democratic parties, they have formed the government,” Mukherjee told Al Jazeera on January 27, 2009. He was India’s foreign minister then. Mukherjee’s statement was the first official confirmation from the Indian establishment about its mediation in Nepal.
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Dahal who was the prime minister when Mukherjee made the revelation, is prime minister again and will be welcoming a guest who is seen as a close friend and guide by the secular-republican forces in the country, led by the Maoists and the Nepali Congress, the two parties that Mukherjee played a key role in bringing together. The BJP establishment, in contrast, is seen as an “ally of the regressive” forces in Nepal. The UPA government continues to face an accusation that it aligned with the forces in Nepal that were the “biggest threat” to India’s internal security.
With the situation in Nepal getting worse after the transition in 2006, India gets a good deal of criticism in the country. Mukherjee could be seen as someone who initiated an experiment that proved costly for Nepal. The sentiment could exacerbate with the recent bitterness in bilateral relations. Nevertheless, the fact that Dahal chose to declare the date of Mukherjee’s arrival as a national holiday, and did not extend that courtesy to Modi, is an indicator of his preference. But after all, a ceremonial president will only be conveying the message of his government, and does not have much leeway to promote a different line of diplomacy. However, he will definitely be using the goodwill he commands to promote Indian as well as bilateral interests.