India's Neighborhood First Policy: S. Jaishankar's Diplomatic Visit to Nepal in 2024
January 03, 2024
25 January, 2024
India’s External Affairs Minister Dr. S Jaishankar embarked on a significant official visit to Nepal from 4-5 January 2024 at the invitation of Nepal’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, N.P. Saud. During this diplomatic mission, the two Ministers collaboratively presided over the 7th meeting of the India-Nepal Joint Commission (JC). The primary focus of this meeting was an extensive review of the entire spectrum of bilateral cooperation, with a particular emphasis on the developmental partnership between the two nations.
The Joint Commission, in its assessment, commended the noteworthy achievements made across various sectors of bilateral cooperation in the time elapsed since the 6th meeting held in January 2021. The discussions and deliberations during the visit underscored the mutual commitment of India and Nepal to further strengthen their diplomatic ties and enhance collaboration in areas of shared interest. This diplomatic engagement symbolises the enduring friendship and cooperative spirit that characterises the relationship between the two neighbouring countries.
Significance of the visit
The visit carried substantial geopolitical significance, especially amid the competition for strategic influence in the Himalayan region by two extra-regional powers, China and the USA. In 2023, both nations engaged in a tit-for-tat series of visits, extending development and security packages to Nepal to shape its political and foreign policy landscape. Notably, on the day India’s External Affairs Minister visited Kathmandu, a delegation from China coincidentally arrived, raising speculations that the timing was deliberate, possibly to divert public attention from the achievements in India-Nepal relations.
On the domestic front, the visit held profound importance as the government led by Prachanda faced staunch opposition from a faction of the Nepali Congress (NC) and the primary opposition party, the CPN-UML. These groups were actively planning to forge a ‘grand alliance’ with the aim of toppling the Maoist-led government. The agreements made during the visit, emphasising mutual benefits, signaled New Delhi’s stance against any political reshuffling in Kathmandu, particularly in the months leading up to the general elections in India. This diplomatic stance reinforced India’s commitment to stability in the region and a steadfast partnership with Nepal.
Key visit outcomes
Contrary to the customary speculations and pre-emptive warnings directed at the government in Kathmandu before the visit, a series of significant agreements were successfully inked between India and Nepal, fostering mutual benefits. Notably, both nations committed to the implementation of High Impact Community Development Projects (HICDPs) in Nepal, with the budgetary allocation for such projects increasing substantially from NPR 5 crore to NPR 20 crore.
A pivotal agreement was reached in the domain of Long-Term Power Trade. The accord outlines a shared commitment to progressively augment the export of power from Nepal to India, aiming to achieve a remarkable 10,000 MW within the next decade. To facilitate this ambitious goal, both countries pledged to take requisite measures to encourage mutually-beneficial investments in Nepal’s hydropower generation sector and transmission infrastructure.
The visit also witnessed the joint inauguration of three 132 kV cross-border transmission lines connecting India and Nepal. These included the second circuit of the Raxaul-Parwanipur line, the second circuit of the Kataiya-Kusaha line, and the New Nautanwa-Mainhiya lines.
Furthermore, India announced a substantial financial assistance package, totalling approximately NPR 1000 crores, with a significant portion provided as grant assistance. This financial aid is earmarked to support the reconstruction efforts in the aftermath of the Jajarkot earthquake.
From a political standpoint, the visit significantly contributed to enhancing mutual understanding between the two nations. Meetings between India’s External Affairs Minister and leaders from both ruling and opposition parties in Nepal focused on fostering cooperative partnerships in economic and developmental spheres, further solidifying the diplomatic ties between the two countries.
Nepali expectations and India’s vision
Nevertheless, this diplomatic move encountered opposition from various sectors. As the visit date was publicised in Nepali media, elites, civil society members, and some opposition parties leaders in Kathmandu began offering recommendations to the Prachanda government on what actions to take and what to avoid while entering agreements with India. A comprehensive list of expectations for the 7th Joint Commission meeting circulated within the city.
Amidst speculations, some media reports underscored the following points:
Contrarily, India sought a limited agenda, focusing on agreements for a 10,000 MW energy trade and increased funding for small development projects under the High-Impact Community Development Projects (HICDPs).
Civil Society Responses
A coalition of civil society members issued a cautionary statement, urging the government to exercise caution in signing agreements that could potentially contradict national interests. In a Citizens’ Appeal released on 4 January 2024, the group, including figures like Suryanath Upadhyay, Dr. Renu Adhikari, Hira Bishwakarma, Kanak Mani Dixit, and Sushil Pyakurel, called on the government to avoid endorsing any agreement that might compromise Nepal’s broader interests. They accused the Pushpa Kamal Dahal government of attempting to undermine the country’s independence and sovereignty.
Former Prime Minister and CPN (Unified Socialist) leader, Jhalnath Khanal, criticised the agreements between Nepal and India related to High-Impact Community Development Projects (HICDPs). In a press statement, he voiced deep concerns, characterising the agreements as an “anti-national agreement.” In response, Prime Minister Prachanda clarified that the disbursement of INRs 200 million provided by India would strictly adhere to a regulated process, emphasising that India cannot unilaterally spend the amount.
Despite these reactions from certain quarters in Nepal, the visit unequivocally strengthened bilateral relations. Subsequent bilateral meetings took place, such as the 11th meeting of the Joint Steering Committee on Power Sector Cooperation (JSC) in Chitwan on January 5, 2024, and the India-Nepal Inter-Governmental Sub-Committee (IGSC) on Trade, Transit, and Cooperation to Combat Unauthorized Trade convened in Kathmandu on January 12-13, 2024.
While the visit followed a routine pattern as part of the India-Nepal bilateral institutional mechanisms, it provided a valuable opportunity for political leaders from both nations to exchange perspectives and elevate their relationship to a more advanced level. The multitude of agreements and issues deliberated upon during the bilateral meeting indicates a shift, with the border-related misunderstandings of 2015 and 2019 taking a backseat, and economic concerns emerging as the predominant focus in bilateral relations.
Nepal occupies a distinctive position in India’s neighbourhood policy, underscoring the significance of regular political visits and timely convening of bilateral institutional meetings. Such engagements not only strengthen the foundation of the relationship but also prove instrumental in addressing other potential sources of tension and fostering a more harmonious diplomatic environment.
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