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Next Door Nepal: A president, a friend

Pranab Mukherjee is seen to have played a key role in Nepal and he could build on that during his upcoming visit to that country.

Written by Yubaraj Ghimire | Published: October 31, 2016 12:10 am
President pranab Mukherjee, Pranab Mukherjee, Narendra Modi, Modi, India nepal relations, India, nepal, India news, Indian express news President Pranab Mukherjee. (Source: PTI)

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.

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.

yubaraj.ghimire@expressindia.com

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More From Yubaraj Ghimire
  1. S
    Satendra kumar
    Oct 31, 2016 at 9:22 pm
    Nepalse government seems taking constructive decision for thier country's future towards democracy peace development and prosperity of the nation.
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    1. B
      Bihari Krishna
      Oct 31, 2016 at 5:00 pm
      President Pranab Mukherjee's visit to Nepal comes not as a spontaneous urge on the part of Nepal. It is imposed on Nepal by the Maoist Centre NC coalition in Nepal which, given their old personal debts to India, wants to be seen as giving precedence to that country. Otherwise it was President Xi of China who was expected to be in Nepal in October. So, in some ways, India extracted this invitation from the Nepal politicians who as people's representatives leave much to be desired. The Maoists in particular are grateful to India for hosting them--even after formally dubbing them terrorists--during their decade-long killing spree in Nepal. Clearly, then foreign minister Mukherjee had been the key player in all these dirty happenings. Besides, Nepal relationship with India failed to improve even under NDA government. which now has the dubious distinction of having imposed protracted blockade against earthquake-devastated Nepal simply because it did not get to interfere in sovereign Nepal's consution writing. So, Mr. Mukherjee should be using his visit to Nepal to ure the Nepalese that a new dawn is in the making in Nepal-India relationship in which his country would be behaving like a responsible neighbour to landlocked Nepal.
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      1. D
        Durga Prasad
        Oct 31, 2016 at 5:43 am
        No visit by any Indian dignitary will ever play any positive role in Nepal because anti Indian sentiment is ingrained in the mind of most Nepalese. This columnist also knows it well, however, he is trying his best to muffle all the truth. stan and Nepal will never go with India. They are made for China. Therefore, Indian government must not hope against hope. All diplomacy will fail in stan and Nepal. Nepal might turn out to be Waterloo for India. Better focus on Bhutan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Let wisdom prevail and stop the President from becoming fool.
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        1. H
          HILARY
          Oct 31, 2016 at 7:22 am
          Interesting to note that the writer considers the present regime in Delhi to be secular.
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          1. M
            manu
            Oct 31, 2016 at 2:52 pm
            Similarity between Napal and Bhutan, both are much smaller countries compared to India. Differences between Nepal and Bhutan, Bhutanese don't hate India because they don't care about India. While Nepalese suffer from chronic inferiority complex. You cannot uage someone's inferiority complex. This writer has been consistently lying about Nepal Blockade, falsely accusing Indian Government of Blockade.
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