Nepal’s Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli arrives in New Delhi Friday for a three-day visit after a particularly acrimonious two years, during which he accused India of masterminding the 135-day blockade of Nepal from September 2015 to February 2016, and of destabilising his government.
Oli was overthrown after Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ withdrew support within a few months of the blockade, and joined hands with the opposition Nepali Congress to become Prime Minister. It was widely speculated at the time that India had brokered the new arrangement between Prachanda and the Nepali Congress’s Sher Bahadur Deuba. Oli fretted publicly, but bided his time.
By the time national and provincial elections were held in December 2017, the moderate Left leader had whetted the anti-India, Nepali nationalist appetite to fever pitch. He reminded the electorate that India had encouraged the Madhesis to block the passage of food, petroleum and other basic commodities to landlocked Nepal for four long months, bringing terrible hardship to the people. He also struck a new partnership with Prachanda — and fighting together, they swept the elections. The Nepali Congress, India’s old ally, was routed.
As India stared into the Nepali chasm, it realised there was no alternative but to reach out to its old antagonist. New Delhi had just emerged from a faceoff with China in Bhutan’s Doklam plateau, and it couldn’t afford to push Nepal into China’s arms. Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Oli twice to congratulate him on his victory. He sent External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Nepal in February, and she invited him to India.
On Saturday, after their talks in Hyderabad House, Oli and Modi will push a button to virtually lay the foundation stone of the 900 MW Arun III hydroelectric project that the Sutlej Jal Vikas Nigam will build at a cost of $ 1.5 billion. The Prime Ministers will also inaugurate the integrated checkpost at Birgunj-Raxaul, the main entry-exit point on the open India-Nepal border. An agreement on moving bulk cargo through other transit points like Biratnagar, Bhairahwa and Nepalgunj, is also expected to be signed — other South Asian countries too will be allowed to use these transit posts to trade with Nepal.
These projects were supposed to have been inaugurated during Modi’s planned visit to Nepal later this year for the BIMSTEC-Bay of Bengal Summit. But New Delhi realised that the time to make amends was now.
India is keenly aware that China’s open chequebook policy has called into question its own tardy implementation of infrastructure projects. Oli told the South China Morning Post recently that the Chinese had offered to extend its Qinghai-Tibet railway beyond Shigatse and Kyirong to the Nepal border by 2020 — Kyirong is only 25 km from Nepal’s Rasuwagadhi border, which is about 50 km from Kathmandu. In addition, the Chinese are building three roads connecting Nepal, which should be ready in a couple of years.
“We have great connectivity with India and an open border. All that’s fine and we’ll increase connectivity even further, but we can’t forget that we have two neighbours. We don’t want to depend on one country, or have one option,” Oli told the South China Morning Post.
Nepal’s Prime Minister can be expected to indicate to New Delhi that it is no longer his country’s only key relationship. And that despite ancient cultural and kinship ties, Kathmandu wants an “updated” relationship, in “keeping with the times”. Oli has said that he wants the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship with India reviewed, which essentially means that Nepal wants to rewrite the clause which enjoins it to “consult” New Delhi before it buys any weapons or enters into any security relationship with a third country.
Nepali analysts underline that in 2007, Bhutan changed the security-related clause in its own friendship treaty with India. “Nepal is a sovereign nation, why should we seek permission from India on security and other matters?” they ask.
As New Delhi readies to roll out the red carpet for Oli and his 53-member delegation, there is concern that the Nepali side wants to change the character of the 1,751 km-long open border, by issuing identification cards for people who live on both sides. Indian officials warn that this is impossible to do, not only because it will stop the free movement of people from Bihar, UP and Uttarakhand who have kinship ties across the border, but also because of the difficulty in policing the hundreds of small and big rivers that flow from one country to the other. There is concern that the ID card idea is actually about policing Indian-origin people of the Madhes who led the recent blockade.
The Madhesis themselves, however, seem keen to clamber on to Oli’s bandwagon, having abandoned Constitutional issues, including equal citizenship and demarcation of provincial boundaries, after having realised that India would not support their cause.
As it seeks to refashion its neighbourhood policy in the last year of the government, New Delhi knows it cannot prevent China from expanding its influence into South Asia. But it will be hoping that when Modi and Oli shake hands, old ties of geography and history will matter as well.