Mending fencesModi has extended olive branch by sending Sushma to Nepal; Oli should welcome gesture
Indian Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj arrives in Kathmandu today for a meeting that will likely have tremendous political significance.
It is said that Sushma is arriving with a “special political message” from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
This means that the Indian government is eager to reach out to the incoming left alliance government and smooth over all tensions that have arisen beginning from the period of the border blockade in 2015.
The visit assumes heightened significance, especially given the poor relationship that the CPN-UML has had with India ever since the time of the last Oli-led government. At that time, Oli had projected himself as a staunch defender of Nepali sovereignty and assumed an anti-Indian posture. The UML’s nationalist position was one of two key reasons—the other being promises of prosperity through a stable left-majority government—why it performed so well in the recent local, provincial and federal elections. In fact, the border blockade was so misguided that it only gave Oli and the larger left forces a second wind. The blockade and its political fallout will be well documented in Nepal’s political history and its neighbourhood politics.
That said, living with strained political ties with an immediate neighbour is never a good idea. It is far wiser to cultivate a big and powerful neighbour and take advantage of its economic growth. Towards that end, Nepal will do well to balance its ties with both India and China—another important neighbour with massive economic heft.
Political pragmatism should drive the Oli government’s neighbourhood policy. And early indications are encouraging. Already, Oli has made strong overtures: sending out a letter of congratulations to Indian Prime Minister Modi on India’s Republic Day. There are also indications that his core team of leaders and advisors are making the right kind of noise in their informal meetings with members of the larger international community. Modi has now reciprocated Oli’s goodwill and sent his External Affairs Minister, who was also the first senior foreign official to visit Nepal after Modi took office in 2014.
While expressions of Nepal-India bonhomie are to be welcome, it is, however, worth remembering the main reason why the bilateral relations deteriorated in the first place. India imposed the blockade in support of the Madhesi population, who were on the streets in 2015 campaigning for a constitutional amendment. Of course, India went far in expressing solidarity to the Madhesi cause.
Understandably, India’s key focus is now on improving relations with Oli and restoring Nepal-India ties to the pre-blockade level. In their victory, UML and Oli should approach the Madhesi parties with open arms. A constitutional amendment that is acceptable to the parties and gives the Madhesi population a greater sense of belonging towards the Nepali nation can only be in the long-term interest of the entire country.