India’s multi-pronged line to right Nepal ties
India is making calculated moves to rebuild relations with Nepal that were damaged by a border dispute earlier this year, while at the same time sending a subtle message to Kathmandu not to cosy up to China.
After ignoring Nepal’s overtures for talks to resolve a thorny border dispute, New Delhi has been dispatching to Kathmandu a slew of intelligence, military and diplomatic emissaries – in that order.
First came the head of India’s external intelligence agency on 21 October, followed on 4 November by its army chief. Now, Indian foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla is scheduled to arrive on 26 November.
Nepal’s media commentators have said the choice of the first two interlocutors have actually been counterproductive to normalising relations, and they raised even more suspicions in Kathmandu about the kind of message New Delhi was sending Nepal.
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“It is quite natural for Nepalis to be taken aback by India selecting the head of its spy agency as the first visitor, after all it is quite clear that it was not an ordinary visit,” wrote Surya Nath Upadhyay, a member of the Indo-Nepal Eminent Persons’ Group (EPG), in the Nagarik newspaper on Tuesday.
Modi has been sitting for the past two years on the EPG’s report on revising the 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty and other bilateral issues. But Upadhyay had even more serious objections about Indian Army Chief Manoj Mukund Naravane’s three day visit to Nepal to be conferred the ceremonial title of honorary general of the Nepal Army.
Gen Navarane is the same person who caused a ruckus in May after Nepal strongly objected to the Indian road to Lipu Lek, insinuating that Nepal was being put up to it by China. There was an uproar in Nepal, and Naravane was criticised even in India for a remark many saw as being insensitive.
Upadhyay went on to speculate if the real reason Samant Goel of R&AW met for three hours late at night in Baluwatar with Prime Minister K P Oli on 21 October was to undermine his nationalist image among Nepalis. This theory carries some credence since although Goel also met other political leaders in Kathmandu, those were kept under wraps.
Indeed, the prime minister immediately came under fire from other leaders, including his rivals in the Pushpa Kamal Dahal faction of his own party, for having met an Indian spy-in-chief. Oli had to then clarify that he had agreed in his phone conversation on India’s Independence Day in August with Prime Minister Narendra Modi to receive an emissary, but that he did not know it would be the head of R&AW.
Writing in Kantipur newspaper on Tuesday, strategic affairs expert Geja Sharma Wagle said Oli agreeing to meet Goel was ‘not just unfortunate but objectionable’. Wagle was also critical of Gen Navarane wearing a Nepali dhaka cap and engaging in ‘religious and cultural diplomacy’ by visiting Pashupati and the Kumari temple in Kathmandu.
‘The Goel and Naravane visits have at least ended the absence of communication between the two countries, but Modi sending a spy chief and an army general instead of a political or diplomatic emissary have raised questions about India’s perspective, policy and intentions in Nepal, especially given the border dispute,’ Wagle wrote.
Gen Naravane’s visit came a week after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark T Esper (since fired by Donald Trump) held a ‘2+2’ meeting with Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to sign the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA). The strategic pact is said to be aimed at countering China’s increasing military clout in the Indian Ocean.
This has raised speculation that the Goel and Naravane visits to Kathmandu had more to do with China than Nepal, because it came at a time when New Delhi’s relations with Beijing are at their worst since the 1962 war. Some analysts say there could be a realisation in Prime Minister Modi’s circle that India might have gone too far with the 2015 Blockade and the Kalapani issue, prompting Prime Minister Oli to lean towards China.
Interestingly, the visits also came at a time when Prime Minister Oli himself is on shaky ground with a vigorous challenge from the Dahal faction of the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) to clip his wings. Oli ignored Dahal’s effort to call a Secretariat meeting, and spent the whole of Tuesday visiting eastern Nepal by helicopter.
Even that visit was an indication of the fine balancing act Nepal has to tread between its two giant neighbours. Oli visited Kimathanka on the Chinese border, as well as the 900MW Arun III hydropower project being built by the Indian public sector company, SJVN.
Foreign Secretary Shringla’s visit to Kathmandu later this month is expected to put India-Nepal relations on a more even keel. Although no analyst expects New Delhi to back down from its claim to Limpiyadhura-Lipu Lek, Nepal will try to allay Indian concerns about China in the Himalayan region.
Relations soured after India unveiled an official map last year that showed the Kalapani region of northwestern Nepal as a part of India, and then made a high-profile inauguration of a military road through that territory to the Chinese border.
Nepal retaliated by getting Parliament to pass a new map that included not just Kalapani but the entire east bank of the Kali River within its boundary, citing the 1816 Sugauli Treaty with British India.