Deuba to restore India ties in Delhi visit

Indian Prime Minister Narandra Modi reveicing Nepali PM Sher Bahadur Deuba during his Delhi visit in 2017. Photo: MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS, INDIA

Sher Bahadur Deuba became Nepal’s prime minister for the first time when he was just 49. A few months later, on 4 Februrary 1996, he ignored a Maoist ultimatum and flew off to India on a state visit.

The Maoists did not even wait for an answer on their 40 demands, and by the time Deuba returned home, Nepal was already embroiled in a war that was to last another 10 years.

In New Delhi, Deuba signed the Mahakali Treaty on the border river that became such a political hot potato that his Nepali Congress (NC) government fell within a year. Deuba has gone on to become prime minister four more times since then -- through the war, royal massacre, the royal military coup, and the peace process.

Now, at age 75, he is embarking on yet another ritual visit to New Delhi.

In the 36 years since his first trip as prime minister, Deuba has been greeted in New Delhi by four Indian prime ministers: P V Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi. Visits to the Delhi Darbar have become mandatory rites of passage for every Nepali prime minister.

No one expects any substantial outcome from this trip, coming as it does during an election year in Nepal in which the NC is in a coalition with its former arch enemy, the Maoists.

But the timing of the visit does carry geopolitical significance — it is happening two months after Nepal ratified the US-funded Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) project, and barely a week after a visit by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Kathmandu.

Deuba’s NC strongly backed the MCC, which the Chinese lobbied quite openly with Nepal’s Communists to try to block. New Delhi stayed out of this row that had polarised Nepal’s politics for years, but it was wary of Chinese inroads into Nepal if the MCC did not go through.

Deuba’s main goal in New Delhi this time will be to restore Nepal-India relations to a more even keel. The high point in bilateral ties was Narendra Modi’s visit to Nepal soon after his election in 2014, during which he addressed Parliament in Nepali, and was warmly welcomed.

But the five-month Indian Blockade in 2015 undid the bonhomie, and rival territorial claims over Kalapani and Limpiyadhura in 2020 kept relations strained. Jingoistic talking heads on Indian tv channels throughout this period did not help matters.

With India’s traditional micro-management of Kathmandu politics replaced by more overt Chinese meddling in the past five years, Nepal-India bilateral relations have calmed down a bit.

But there are still recurring irritants: lack of agreement on two-way air routes, conditions on export of surplus hydropower, border embankments that flood the Tarai.

Despite this, there is more that binds Nepal and India than divides. Nepali citizens are enlisted in the Indian Army, there are an estimated 3 million Nepali workers in India, and Nepal is the seventh largest source of remittances for India's own migrant workers.

Deuba leads a 48-member delegation to New Delhi on Friday, and will make a quick side pilgrimage to Banaras. Just as Wang Yi handed over Pokhara Airport to Nepal earlier this week, Modi and Deuba will virtually inaugurate the mothballed 35km Kurtha-Jayanagar border railway. The visit is therefore expected to be largely ceremonial.

Deuba has been getting sympathetic coverage in the Indian press, supposedly for standing up to China. Commentators there want Modi and Deuba to get over ‘temporary setbacks’ and ‘reboot’ bilateral ties.

Some Indian experts have urged Deuba to carry on where he left off in 1996 to ‘pick the low-hanging fruit’ of the Mahakali Treaty. India has long proposed a grandiose scheme to build a cascade of dams on the border river for inter-basin transfer of water to the Yamuna, and on to Gujarat, in exchange for electricity for Nepal. Deuba will try to avoid this sensitive topic since his party faces three levels of elections this year.

Four decades later, Prime Minister Deuba will come a full circle on this trip to India. His Nepali Congress was in power for most of the Maoist insurgency from 1996-2006. Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal (on whose head Deuba had placed a dead-or-alive ransom) spent most of those war years in a safe house in New Delhi, and is now principal partner in his governing coalition.

Kunda Dixit


Kunda Dixit is the former editor and publisher of Nepali Times. He is the author of 'Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered' and 'A People War' trilogy of the Nepal conflict. He has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and is Visiting Faculty at New York University (Abu Dhabi Campus).

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