Nepal PM to India to reboot tiesPushpa Kamal Dahal will meet Narendra Modi this week amidst signs of improved bilateral relations
Nepal’s Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s three-day official visit to India starting Wednesday is being keenly watched in Kathmandu and these borderlands of the Tarai.
Relations between the two asymmetric South Asian neighbours at the moment are neither ‘chilly’ nor ‘warm’. Things have got a lot more cordial since UML Prime Minister K P Oli was replaced by a Maoist-Nepali Congress coalition led by Sher Bahadur Deuba in 2022.
The visit comes as Prime Minister Dahal tried to keep his shaky 9-party coalition intact, by even getting a presidential pardon this week for an MP convicted for the killing of policemen in Kailali in 2015.
Disillusionment with Nepal’s three mainstream parties has manifested in the rise of the independent RSP, while the RPP is trying to promote ex-king Gyanendra as a symbol of national unity, stability and the revival of a Hindu kingdom, hoping to ride the Hindutva wave in India.
Indeed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s aggressive Hindu-right agenda is having a ripple effect across the border. Despite his BJP’s defeat in the Karnataka polls earlier this month, Modi seems to be on a roll because of India’s buoyant economy.
It has become somewhat of a tradition for a new prime minister in Nepal to fly to New Delhi on his first pilgrimage to pay his respects to rulers there, even if it is someone who is prime minister for the third time.
Questions have been raised about whether Dahal should necessarily follow this practice, but Dahal nevertheless cancelled what was to be his first visit to China in March to attend the Boao Forum in Hainan.
Dahal has to finely balance the need to appease Indian leaders to extract concessions on river projects, air routes, infrastructure assistance, while at the same time playing to the gallery back home by not kowtowing too much.
The chronic problem in India-Nepal relations has been a trust deficit in both capitals about each other. What does Nepal expect from India, and what does India want to do in Nepal? Bilateral relations should not depend on which leader or party is in power in New Delhi or Kathmandu, it should have continuity and be determined by what will benefit citizens of both countries.
In 2014, India had appeared to change its approach to Nepal by appearing magnanimous during Prime Minister Modi’s first visit, but the goodwill he built collapsed with the blockade and bilateral relations chilled as non-political actors started directing policy.
It will not work if one set of leaders in Nepal sanctifies India, while another vilifies it. This might serve their immediate political interest, but will do long-term harm to mutual ties. Leaders are also fickle and erratic in their stance: Prime Minister Dahal is the same person who during the conflict threatened to wage a ‘tunnel war’ against India.
Dahal’s visit to Delhi also comes at a time of heightened geopolitical tension in the region with growing Sino-US polarisation, India’s involvement in the Quad and the danger of Nepal being forced to choose sides between its neighbours. Nepal will need to deploy all its diplomatic skills to play its role in this new world stage.
India’s rulers may also need to ponder why the traditional close ties with Nepal have become frayed. True friends talk things over, and it is in the interest of both neighbours to rebuild trust. New Delhi strategists appear sanguine that whatever the noise on social media, its tactics in Nepal are working.
But many Nepalis still feel that India acts like Big Brother and pushes its weight around, promises a lot and delivers little. Dahal needs to take this up at the highest levels during his visit and obtain tangible results to reboot relations to at least 2014 levels.
Nowhere is the people-to-people relations between India and Nepal felt as keenly as in the Tarai. The open border, close cultural and family links and trade bind the two countries together.
However, even here there is a feeling that India is unfeeling. Every year, poorly-designed road, railway and flood control embankments in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh inundate Tarai towns. Every monsoon the Kathmandu media suddenly becomes ultra-nationalistic, laying all the blame on Indian state governments.
The Indian media also whips up anti-Nepal feelings by holding Nepal responsible for ‘unleashing water from its dams’ even though Nepal does not have any dams to let water out from and the border barrages are controlled by India.
Indeed, the national media (and increasingly social media posts) on both sides of the border are largely to blame for undermining the friendship between the people and governments of the two countries. Media should instead focus on evidence that embankment-building worsens water-logging in farms and towns on both sides of the border.
These floods are bound to get worse if the deforestation, sand mining and quarrying of the Chure Range resumes. Nepal will not just be exporting boulders and aggregates, but also increased sediment that will worsen floods and further lower the water table in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
In 2010, President Ram Baran Yadav raised the issue of Chure conservation during his visit to New Delhi, but the demand in India for raw material to feed its construction boom is so great that Nepali contractors with political patronage want to plunder the fragile Chure ecosystem.
Even when relations between New Delhi and Kathmandu were strained in the past, there was a belief that people-to-people bonds were strong. That narrative is now increasingly frayed. Indians and Nepalis are needlessly harassed by each other’s border security.
Nepal-India relations have always been defined by how well or badly governments in their capitals get along. Rather than Indian or Nepali people, leaders of the two countries determine the state of relations.
How well neighbouring countries get along is determined by geography, history, culture, trade, politics, religion. And those factors have kept ties across the border stable all these years, but Nepalis in the Tarai are asking: does New Delhi determine its policy towards Nepal by seeing how they will be affected, or by maintaining its influence on the movers and shakers in Kathmandu?
The marriage of Ram from India and Sita from Nepal are often cited to prove how close Nepal-India bonds are. The Buddha was born in Nepal but got enlightenment in India. But when leaders talk about Janakpur-Ayodhya, or Lumbini-Bodh Gaya, they seldom take into account the people who live there.
Bilateral relations should not be limited to periodic summits between the leaders of India and Nepal, they need to translate into action on the ground that makes the lives of the people of the borderlands more convenient and sustainable through better connectivity and environmental safeguards.
Chandra Kishore is a Birganj-based political commentator. His monthly column BORDERLINES appears in Nepali Times every month. @kishore_chandra