Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Oli, quite often repeated during his five-day stay in New Delhi, and upon his return to Nepal, that his single visit to the “South” has brought bilateral relations back to normal, and that it was a remarkable gain both for Nepal and India. He also insisted the state honour accorded him was not given to an individual but to the elected PM of a sovereign state. Thus, this amounted to India shedding its reservations, recognising Nepal’s constitution.
Yet, towards the end, there were clear indicators that, along with the “traditional warmth”, curtness and coldness marred the visit — that all is not well in bilateral ties. The two sides failed to come out with a joint statement. There are no official reasons given, but Nepal wasn’t happy about India’s refusal to commend the constitution unconditionally. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that while the new constitution was a major achievement, more was needed to accommodate all aspirations.
At the same time, Oli found President Pranab Mukherjee closer to his point of view. Mukherjee, who was foreign minister in the UPA government overseeing Nepal’s radical shift in 2005, was full of praise for the end of the transition. According to a high-level Nepali delegate, Mukherjee was of the opinion that “Nepal’s constitution is its internal document, something that India has no reason to disagree or be dissatisfied with”.
But Oli was perhaps the only PM from Nepal to declare in advance that he wasn’t visiting Delhi with a “shopping list”. He thus gave no occasion to calculate the gap between demand and supply, a major yardstick normally applied to measure the success or failure of a prime ministerial visit. Yet, his visit and the end of the long blockade on its eve, initially gave the impression that his rigid pre-conditions had been accepted by Delhi. The blockade had ruined the economy of half a dozen Indian towns along the border along with that of Nepal. It generated hostility towards India in Nepal’s younger generation.
Despite Oli’s claim that he went to Delhi with no list and came back having totally repaired the relationship, the trip is being scrutinised within the governing coalition and by the opposition, with usual suspicions of “secret deals” in the air. Soon after his return, Oli was grilled by members of the high-level political machinery of the coalition.
What transpired in the 40-minute meeting between the two PMs is still secret. But there’s speculation that the growing anti-India sentiment in Nepal and Kathmandu’s perceived tilt towards China, as well as India’s keenness to contribute “massively” to post-earthquake reconstruction, dominated the talks. India’s concern about China’s growing presence in Nepal was visible as BJP leader Subramanian Swamy cautioned Oli about the consequences of such a “shift”. Swamy’s visit to Kathmandu, just before Oli set out for Delhi, was seen as a message from Modi.
Meanwhile, as the Nepali Congress, the largest party and main opposition, prepares for its general convention, its powerful central committee member Shashank Koirala has raised a political storm by demanding that the party review three issues — federalism, secularism and its status as a republic — if Nepal is to survive. It implies reverting to constitutional monarchy and a “Hindu Nepal”.
While Oli told the high-level machinery that no suggestion of a “Hindu Nepal” came from Modi, he failed to convince that his visit had removed all isunderstandings. It was hoped that, apart from finalising a police academy, some concrete measures for the time-bound execution of the major hydel projects would be announced.
India was also keen to construct an international airport. But, reportedly, there was no agreement.
Within days of his return, Oli decided to visit Beijing for a week, beginning March 20, although he has said he will not play the China card against India. China, however, has already sent the draft of the new extradition treaty, asserting that Nepal is being used by foreign powers and international NGOs to fuel the free-Tibet movement that has direct implications on its security.
How will India go forward in Nepal now? How comfortable will Oli’s coalition be?
His Delhi visit will be judged on these crucial points.