External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s trip to Nepal appears to have sent out some wholesome signals. It conveyed a message of change from a new government — that New Delhi desires to abandon the past practice of missing opportunities and that it also intends to elevate the status of the bilateral relationship with regular interaction at the political level.
India’s decision to review the 1950 India-Nepal peace and friendship treaty — a longstanding Kathmandu demand — communicated one such important note of departure from the past, which will help prepare the ground for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to that country early next month. Of course, assuring Nepal that India will keep its promises will need more than words. Yet, the fact that the bilateral joint commission met after 23 years and that an Indian prime minister is visiting after 17 years and two decades of Delhi’s political neglect of Kathmandu are signs of the government’s earnestness in prioritising the neighbourhood.]
For India’s Nepal policy to be genuinely successful, however, the chief ministers of states bordering Nepal must be kept in the loop. During his election campaign, Modi had spoken of the need to regularise states’ partnership with the Centre in the framing of important policies that affect them. Five states — Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Sikkim — share borders with Nepal. The points of India-Nepal cooperation — border management, water and energy resource management, addressing security and crime and facilitating transportation — all concern these states.
The India-Nepal border is an open and linked border, across which people move freely, even as they maintain deep social and familial ties. Close collaboration between the Centre and states is required, therefore, to construct India’s policy towards Nepal. It would be a good move if Swaraj, who had consulted West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee before her Bangladesh trip, briefs these five chief ministers before Modi leaves for Kathmandu.
Modi could even invite the chief ministers to accompany him. That none of them belongs to the BJP would make the gesture even more politically sagacious. Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, had tried a similar approach with Bangladesh, but it was wrecked by Banerjee. Under the UPA, the Centre would either not consult with states — or allow them a veto on foreign policy. Modi needs to break the syndrome, lay down a new marker for dealing with with the states. Including them in neighbourhood diplomacy would be a great way to start.