By Dr. Bawa Singh
The Nepalese Prime Miniter Sher Bahadur Deuba’s first state visit to India (23-27 August 2017) after assuming the office of Prime Minister in June 2017 has taken on a significant geopolitical meaning for Indo-Nepal relations. PM Deuba has led a large delegation of 48 members including the Deputy PM, FM Krishna BahadurMahara, some other ministers, MPs, secretaries and other high ranking officials. The PM Deuba had one to one meeting with the Indian leadership including the Prime Minister, President, Vice-President, Finance Minister ArunJaitley and other leaders like former PM Manmohan Singh and INC President Mrs. Sonia Gandhi. PM Modi had an unscheduled ‘warm up’ meeting with Deuba along with full state honours and red carpet welcome. Apart from official engagements in New Delhi, PM Deuba has also paid visit to Hyderabad, Tirupati and Bodh Gaya. In this context, the primary focus of this piece would remain to decode the geopolitical meaning of the visit.
As far as, Nepal’s wish list is concerned, before the PM Deuba take off to India, the main opposition leader CPN (UML) Chairman KP Sharma Oli has reminded the PM that he must raise the issues of national interests including the problems of the Tarai-Madhes, Indo-Nepal Treaty 1950, Extradition Treaty, energy development, border river dams etc. Most of the Nepalese leaders conceived that the Indian embankment on its side is responsible for floods in Nepal. Currently, Nepal has been hard hit by the floods and landslides in which 149 people have lost their valuable lives, and about 10 thousand become homeless. In this background, it is the high time for bilateral talks and discussions to seek the permanent solutions to the problem of floods. Apart from this, the official line of Nepalese ruling leadership that it is important to seek the support of India for the upcoming local election in September 2017.
As per the editorial (Repair and Recover-24 August 2017) of Indian Express, the five-day visit of Prime Minister Deuba would provide an opportunity for India to a clear-eyed look at the bilateral relations. In the same, it has been argued that Delhi must convey the message that ties with Nepal must be more than transactional. To accommodate each other’s aspirations, sensitivities, and interests, both the Prime Ministers had comprehensive talks covering multilateral aspects of the bilateral issues. It is said that the bilateral talks had been in the atmosphere of utmost cordiality and warmth which substantiated the close and friendly relations between both the countries. A joint statement of 46 points has been issued on 24 August 2017, covering all the major issues/stakes concerning both the countries. In the joint statement, the people to people contact has been given in the bilateral relations. The two Prime Ministers have, “reaffirmed their commitment to work towards strengthening bilateral relations by mutual trust, goodwill, mutual benefit, with due regard to each other’s aspirations, sensitivities, and interests.”
To make the bilateral relations more meaningful, strengthening defense and security cooperation; partnership for sustainable development; enhancing cross-border connectivity through infrastructure development, and the cooperation in projects of national priority for Nepal are some of the areas identified for bilateral cooperation. When the Nepalese PM Deuba highlighted some priority projects for Nepal’s growth and development, in reciprocation, Prime Minister of India assured the PM Deuba that India stands ready for providing economic and development assistance. Moreover, the eight MoUs were signed such as Indian support for post-earthquake reconstruction covering houses, education, the cultural heritage, and the health; road connectivity programme (funded by India); drug demand reduction and prevention of illicit trafficking in narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances and precursor chemical and related matters; standardisation and conformity assessment and the last one between the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India and the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nepal.
As far as bilateral issues are concerned, the visit claimed to be a mixed reaction on the part of Nepalese leadership. The heavy weight political leaders, the CPN (Maoist) Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal said that Prime Minister SherBahadurDeuba's India visit was successful. In a press conference on 26 August 2017, the former Prime Minister Dahal has remained positive as far as the outcome of the visit is concerned. He believed that PM Deuba did not go over board as he only discussed the past and present issues and the implementation of the past agreements.
On the other hand, the opposition leader has asked earnestly the PM Deuba to inform the need and reasons for the Nepalese people (through the parliament) why he would like to paid visit to India when the House Session is underway. The major criticism which made headlines was on part of theCPN (UML) Chairman KP Sharma Oli, was an issuance of stern and stark statement labeling the Prime Minister SherBahadurDeuba’s activities and the reports have been issued during his ongoing India visit are as disgraceful.
Now, the major question is, why the PM visit to India has been taken as disgraceful, needs to be analyzed here. The South Asian Monitor.Com staff argued in its report that Deuba’s visit to India has taken place at that point in time when he is found at the weak position in parliament by the failure of the constitutional amendment bill to address Madhesi grievances. PM Deuba has assured India about the constitutional amendment to address the issues of Madhesis. These political dynamics has provoked the main opposition leader K P Sharma Oli who demanded his resignation on ‘moral grounds.’ Against this background, Deuba has considered that it is direly needed to be taken India into confidence and its endorsement for the Nepali constitution promulgated in 2015. In this context, India has also expressed its satisfaction and urged Prime Minister Deuba to continue a dialogue with all sections of society in this regard. Despite this severe criticism on the home front, PM Deuba had expressed confidence that soon it would be a reality that the Nepalese constitution accommodate the views of the all sections and ethnicities.
The most important part of visit is geopolitical perspective. The visit of Nepal’s PM has taken place at that point of time when India and China have been engaged in Doklam standoff during the last two months. PM Deuba and Indian Foreign Affairs Minister SushmaSwaraj have already met in Kathmandu earlier this month, and the two sides are known to have discussed the Doklam issue. As far as the official line is concerned, there is the neutral stance on the part of Nepal in context of Doklam issue. But Indian worries emerged from the stand of some private organizations in Nepal, being perceived to be close to China, had expressed dismay at the country’s stance. As per the report of Hindustan Times (14 August 2015), they usually perceive the Doklam standoff as a bilateral issue between China and Bhutan. Why is India interfering in the bilateral issue of China and Bhutan?
In between of these unfavorable stands being emerged in Nepal further heightened the Indian worries in the backdrop of the Chinese Vice-Premier Wang Yang’s visit (14 August 2017) to Nepal. Despite the clarification by the Nepalese leadership that it has nothing to do with the Doklam issue and even has no relevance to it, the concerns of Indian government has not been lessened. It is presumed that Chinese Vice-Premier Wang Yang might have raised the issue of Doklam standoff. In this context, it is worth to quote here a Nepalese official who said, “The timing of Wang’s visit is important, and we will be keenly watching the visit, ” as there is the indication of Doklam issue discussion with Nepal. Both sides did not clarify the agenda for Wang’s visit. But it was expected that Wang Yang has tried to garner Nepal support forDoklam issue and some projects of Belt and Road Initiative. As Nepal has already been extended support to the initiative, but the projects have not been identified so far.
The other concern comes from the opposition leader PK Oli, who wanted to include in the visit agenda that Nepal is the SAARC Chair and in this capacity, the visiting PM should tap the opportunity and should play an important role to de-escalate the geopolitical and other tensions existing in the region. It might be an indication to take the stand on the Doklam issue. As this point raised by the former PM PK Oli who used to be considered as the pro-Beijing.
Everything related to PM visit to India also has not been gone down well. PM Deuba has been given a civic reception by the India Foundation, India’s ruling BJP’s research organization. In his address, Ram VilashPaswan (Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution) said: “India will defend Nepal if a third country attacks it, and Nepal will have to support India if a third country attacks India.” At the same time, Paswan has accused China of “swallowing’ Tibet, and given assurance that, “India will not let that happen to Nepal.” In a reaction to these geopolitical statements, PM Deuba replied very tersely, “China is a good friend of Nepal … China has always respected Nepal’s sovereignty.” On the other hand, the Indian leaders have been expecting from Deuba the same statement as has been given in the context of China, “India too is Nepal’s friend, and India too has always respected Nepal’s sovereignty.” From these actions and reactions, as per the report of Nepali Times (2017, 25 August) that Deuba’s replied had irked New Delhi. For this statement, some Indian politicians, diplomats, and ex-army generals, who were present over there, had blamed the Nepalese FM Mahara, believed to convince the PM Deuba to convey this message to India. Over this, FM Mahara reacted as, “I had a hard time trying to convince the Indians that it was not my idea, and our PM spoke his mind.”
At last, it can be concluded that visit of the PM Deubahas been remained as mixed one- successful and failure. As far as bilateral issues and cooperation are concerned, bilateral talks have resulted in cordial and friendly environment. Several areas have been identified to enhancing bilateral engagements/cooperation. It is anticipated that the visit will prove as a milestone in the normalization of the relationship by weeding out the some hiccups emerged out of the post-constitutional crisis 2015 political environment. Seeing the wide range of the issues covered in joint statement and MoUs, India has shown its willingness to focus on transactional business with credible partner Nepal focussing on several important issues like political, economic, security, energy and connectivity and infrastructural development. But on the other hand, geopolitical perspective has left some bitter experiences that have not been gone well on Indian side. The efforts have been made during the visit to create a “special relationship” likely to meet some hard stances on part of both sides. Therefore, it is recommended that both countries should learn from history and should accommodate each other’s interests, stakes and sensitivities particularly geopolitical perspective, to create maintain and sustain “special relationship.”