Swaraj’s message was clear: Delhi wants to depart from past practice of missing opportunities.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj chose not to make lengthy statements on her visit. But she emphasised at every meeting that India’s new government was determined to take the relationship with Nepal to a new level. As Swaraj left Nepal after 40 hours, she had earned enough trust in a country where the perceived “Indian high-handedness” is a matter of distaste. She was able to build a positive atmosphere and enough goodwill for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit, scheduled for August.
Apart from her oratory and ability to strike a chord in individuals, she has had a long association with prominent Nepali Congress leaders, including Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, given her past as a Socialist Party activist before she joined the BJP. She didn’t breach protocol while meeting Nepali dignitaries and leaders, in a welcome departure from the recent past. “India is not the big brother, it is just an elder brother,” she said.
Koirala praised India for its “generous and positive gesture”, while Kamal Thapa, chairman of the pro-monarchy and pro-Hindu Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal, made an appeal to make Modi’s visit free of controversy. The atmosphere on the eve of Swaraj’s visit was charged with distrust of India, especially because the draft agreement on cooperation in the power sector — that India had sent, suggesting 100 per cent investment by India or Indian entities — was viewed as New Delhi’s move to monopolise Nepal’s water resources. Barely eight hours before her arrival, Koirala, after consultations with three major political outfits, decided the challenge at the moment for Nepal and India was credibility, given their failure to execute past promises on development and hydro-power.
“Let India build a model and modest hydro-project, a road in mid-hill, and postal roads in the plains on a time-bound basis, instead of going for cost- and time-consuming mega projects, and that will create a situation for larger partnership in future,” Maoist chief Prachanda told The Indian Express. He recalled how the 250 MW Naumure hydro project, which India’s then external affairs minister and current president, Pranab Mukherjee, promised as a “gift” to Nepal in 2008, was dumped as “not feasible” subsequently. Swaraj took all of these into account, promised continuous high-level interaction at the political level henceforth, and the execution of promised projects at a pace Nepal desired. She also emphasised that India wanted Nepal stable, prosperous and secure.
With a slight deviation from the previous government’s stance, Swaraj said that while India wanted “an inclusive constitution acceptable to all sides”, the responsibility to decide upon the elements of the constitution, the structure of state and governance, etc rested solely with the people of Nepal. The message was clear: India had no favourites in Nepal, nor was Delhi going to be party to Nepal’s internal politics.
But messages and diplomatic gestures on such visits are usually made on a trial basis and reviewed when the two sides get down to business. A widely circulated post on social media in Nepal, with hostile comments, relates to a passage from Mission R&AW by R.K. Yadav, a former officer, which claims that Indira Gandhi as prime minister was planning to break up Nepal — separating the Terai — after she had successfully merged Sikkim with India. He further claims that her imposing of the Emergency and her subsequent electoral defeat got in the way. Aggressive slogans in the Terai, some political parties’ perceived proximity to the Indian establishment — some of them even claiming the Terai to be an “internal colony of Nepal” — and the issue of the power sector draft agreement dominated the political debate, with leftist groups, particularly the Maoists, raking up the question of “Indian designs”.
The sudden exit of the monarchy, without a credible alternative in place, created a big political vacuum and India’s involvement in Terai politics, China watchers say, created the pretext for China’s entry in Nepal on the current scale. In the absence of a stable institution, China found no ally to talk to about its real grievances and Terai politics, influenced by India, gave the north the reason to ask: “Why is India interested in having a buffer within a buffer?” After that, China developed its interest in many other areas, including water resources and power, which Beijing stayed away from earlier. From the Indian perspective, things will get clearer when Modi arrives in August. Swaraj has, meanwhile, created trust on the ground and shown interest in departing from the past of missed opportunities.