Between bordersNepali political class has to convey stability in foreign policy
Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba concluded his five-day visit to India on Sunday much along expected lines. Eight pacts were signed, including on cooperation in post-earthquake rebuilding and fighting drug trafficking. The two countries also agreed to set a timeline for completing energy-related projects including the detailed project report (DPR) of the Pancheswar Hydro-Electricity Project. PM Deuba and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi also inaugurated the Kataiya-Kusaha and Raxaul-Parwanipur cross-border power transmission lines. All of these activities, while important, were routine in nature. They do not in themselves explain whether the visit was a success or a failure for Nepal.
When it comes to Nepal-India relations, there are a number of key indicators that offer clues as to whether there has been progress. First, Nepal and India have signed many agreements over the years. But there have been complaints and concerns about delays in implementation, with fingers pointed at India. So far, it isn’t clear whether Deuba made any progress in pushing the Indian side to complete projects such as the Hulaki Rajmarg or Postal Highway. The two countries reached an agreement for the construction of the Postal Highway, which comprises 19 road projects in different places, more than a decade ago. So far, only two roads in western Nepal—Lamki-Tikapur-Khakraula and Sati-Bhajaniya-Dhangadi—have been completed and works on six roads have commenced. These are clear indications that progress has been tardy.
Second, the most important issue in relations between the two countries is one of balance. While India wants Nepal to remain under its sphere of influence, Nepal wants to have an independent foreign policy. This question has become even more vital at the current time, due to China’s growing power and its recent tensions with India. At one public occasion in Delhi, Deuba did mention that Nepal had very good relations with China and wanted to maintain them. This was interpreted to mean that Nepal would not take India’s side in any dispute with China. Over the longer term, if Nepal is to maintain its strategic space, it will have to convince India that it is in Nepal’s interest to have maximum flexibility in its dealings with all countries and that this will not harm India in any way. There does not appear to have been much progress on this front during this visit.
Nepal can benefit from its relations with India and China only if it is able to maintain a stable foreign policy even though governments might change. Our political class has been unable to convey stability in foreign policy. When the CPN-UML’s KP Oli was PM, the Indians perceived him as a threat. Now that Deuba is PM, the Indian government seems to think that he is a valuable partner who will keep China out of Nepal. Such perceptions are exacerbated by domestic rivalries between parties. It would be to the benefit of Nepal if all parties could maintain a united stance, at least in matters concerning foreign policy.