Our support will always be there as Nepal embarks on federal democratic republicIndian President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Nepal marks an important event in Nepal-India relations.
Indian President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Nepal marks an important event in Nepal-India relations. It comes in the backdrop of warming ties between the two countries after bilateral relations had hit a low point over India’s displeasure with Nepal’s new constitution and the subsequent undeclared border blockade. A long-time Nepal hand in New Delhi, Mukherjee is widely known in Nepal’s political circles. As a senior leader of the Indian National Congress, he held various ministerial portfolios in the Government of India and remained one of the party’s major political pillars. Before he became India’s 13th President in July 2012, he was Union Finance Minister from 2009 to 2012. As India’s External Affairs Minister, he played a key role in Nepal’s transition to peace that started in 2005 with the signing of the 12-point agreement between the seven-party alliance and the Maoists in Delhi. What is remarkable about the current visit is that, besides Kathmandu, Mukherjee is also scheduled to visit two other towns—Pokhara and Janakpur. In an interview with Akhilesh Upadhyay and Sudheer Sharma, Mukherjee said that Nepal and India share unique bilateral ties, and that the private sectors of both sides should be encouraged to expand linkages in manufacturing and services and benefit from India’s growth story. He also suggested that Nepal could take useful lessons from the Indian democratic experience as Nepal moves towards a federal democratic republic.
An Indian President is visiting Nepal after nearly two decades, how did it come about and what can we expect from your visit?
The last visit of an Indian President was in 1998 when Late Shri KR Narayanan paid a state visit to Nepal. It is, therefore, after 18 years that a presidential visit is taking place from India to Nepal. I agree with you that this gap is far too long. I am happy that I am visiting Nepal at the invitation of President Bidhya Devi Bhandari. I am looking forward to meeting the political leaders and friends in Nepal, and exchange views with them on a range of issues of mutual interests. The purpose of my visit is to advance our close and multi-faceted partnership with Nepal further. I also look forward to the visit of the President of Nepal to India at the earliest convenient time.
How would you describe the current state of Nepal-India relations?
Our shared cultural traditions, geography and civilizational linkages define our unique bilateral ties. We share a common vision of economic prosperity and sustainable development for our peoples and the region. Ours is a people-centric partnership, and a multi-faceted one. There is some sort of inevitability about relations between the peoples of our two countries. As it happens, in any relationship of this depth and intensity, there are times when we may have differing perceptions on certain aspects. But we do manage any such differences with sensitivity, goodwill and utmost understanding of each other’s vital interests. This has been the case throughout the history of India-Nepal relations. In my view, the current state of India-Nepal relations is excellent and both the governments are determined to work hard to meet the ever growing aspirations of our people for higher standards of living.
You are known as one of the few Indian leaders who are well versed on issues related to Nepal-India ties, including the peace process, which started in 2006. How would you characterise Nepal’s ongoing political process?
I am encouraged by the developments in Nepal since the commencement of the peace process in 2006. I applaud the efforts and achievements of the Nepali people to consolidate multi-party democracy and strive for peace, progress and economic prosperity. As a close friend, India wishes the people and government of Nepal every success in pursuit of these objectives.
Let’s move on to more contemporary issues. When Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister, there was much excitement in the neighbourhood. He invited all Saarc member states to his swearing-in-ceremony, strongly espoused the ‘neighbours first’ policy, generated huge goodwill in Nepal with two visits within a year and addressed Nepal’s Parliament too. Two years later, the early excitement is now not only tempered with caution but also a certain degree of mistrust. How did we get here?
If I see developments in the last two years, I see several reasons for optimism about India-Nepal relations. We have had intensive high-level political exchanges. At the same time, our bilateral mechanisms are meeting regularly to advance our functional cooperation across diverse sectors. We have signed a power trade agreement and India has begun exporting electricity to Nepal through a new transmission line. Bilateral trade has maintained a stable trajectory, as has our development cooperation. We are in the process of implementing an oil pipeline project between India and Nepal, which will be the first cross-border pipeline to be built in South Asia.
We have signed project development agreements for two hydropower projects. We have also set up the Pancheshwar Development Authority, which has been meeting regularly to pursue cooperation on this important project. However, there is no room for complacency. I believe we have tremendous untapped potential for further expanding cooperation in all these sectors. An essential dimension of the ‘neighbourhood first’ policy is to enhance connectivity in the region—physical connectivity, digital connectivity, trade and transit facilitation, and exchange of ideas. Indeed, across all sectors of our national endeavours, we have made progress during the last two years or so. And we are determined to build on this progress. My sense is that, at the popular level, this movement forward will shape our perception of each other.
How do we get into a win-win situation?
I think all the initiatives in diverse sectors that have been undertaken by our two countries have contributed towards the socio-economic development of our two peoples. This is what you call a win-win situation. With economic transformation underway in India, new opportunities are opening up for the cooperation between India and Nepal in particular, given our open border and national treatment accorded to each other’s citizens. In fact, our people have been quick to seize these opportunities as is evidenced by millions of Nepali citizens living and working across the whole length and breadth of India. As governments, we need to further facilitate this process so that we continue our win-win partnership.
What’s the Indian position on Nepal’s new constitution?
As a close neighbour, we are interested in peace, stability and progress of Nepal. We have learnt from our own experience that sustainable socio-economic development can only be achieved in an environment of peace, stability and a participatory democracy, where every section of society is an equal stakeholder in the political processes and its outcomes. These lessons could be beneficial to Nepal as it embarks on its own path to democracy.
There’s been criticism, in Nepal and elsewhere, about India going too far in expressing its displeasure with the new constitution, mainly in imposing over a four-months-long undeclared border blockade.
Given our shared border, developments within Nepal can impact the flow of goods across it. But let us not forget that ours is a unique partnership, which is driven by extensive contacts between our two peoples. India has an abiding interest in peace, stability and development of Nepal. As close friends, we, therefore, welcome all efforts that lead to enduring peace and stability in Nepal. Our support and good wishes will always be there as Nepal moves forward towards a federal democratic republic.
To many, the undeclared blockade only polarised the Nepali society further and escalated anti-India sentiments. India does enjoy a lot of leverage on Nepal and coercive measures like these only alienate the Nepali population. As the head of the Indian state, how do you respond to this criticism?
Let me underscore that the central tenet of India’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy is close contacts and shared prosperity. Our engagement with Nepal will always be guided by the long-term interests of both nations. Going forward, I firmly believe that India and Nepal need to do more to work together for our common goal of development, peace, economic prosperity and well-being of our peoples.
Another major irritant in Nepal-India ties is the huge, and increasing, trade surplus in favour of India. Can something tangible be done to counter the trade imbalance?
I have always held the view that India and Nepal, linked as they are by geography and civilizational contacts, need to adopt policies that promote mutual investments, create jobs and contribute to national growth. While we have maintained steady growth in bilateral trade and investments, we can certainly do much more to facilitate business linkages between the two countries. Our private sectors should be encouraged to expand linkages in manufacturing and services, engage in regional supply chains and benefit from India’s growth story. It is equally important that we address market entry barriers and continue to take measures to facilitate trade and mutual investments. Further, we believe that expeditious implementation of hydropower projects and promotion of investments between India and Nepal would not only contribute to reducing the trade gap but also to creating jobs in Nepal.
Nepal still relies on the heavily congested Calcutta/Haldia port for its trade, though there has lately been talk of using Visakhapatnam as well. What can Nepal expect from New Delhi to facilitate its trade and transit?
The facilities at the Visakhapatnam port have already been made available for the movement of goods to Nepal. We have also taken new measures to facilitate the movement of goods between Nepal and Bangladesh through India. I am sure that Nepali businesses will fully utilise the facilities extended through the Visakhapatnam port. The two countries are also creating new integrated check-posts and railway links along the India-Nepal border. We hope that land acquisition and other associated matters for the development of hydro-power projects, integrated check-posts and cross-border railway lines would be addressed early for these projects to be completed expeditiously for the benefit of our two peoples.
There’s a strong perception in Nepal that India views us primarily through the prism of its security concerns and that has hindered our development in trade, connectivity and so on. Do you see that changing in the near future?
While India naturally has its interests, what guides us equally is the belief that these are in consonance with those of Nepal. It is a multi-dimensional perspective. While peace and stability in Nepal are important for India, Nepal’s socio-economic development is also equally important. If you see India’s contribution to infrastructure development in Nepal since the 1950s, you will come to the self-evident conclusion that India is not only the largest investor in Nepal and Nepal’s biggest trade partner but also the largest partner to Nepal’s infrastructure development. India is committed to moving ahead with Nepal, as per its priorities, on development and economic and connectivity projects, which will benefit the growth of trade, investments and movement of people.
Successive governments in Nepal have stressed the value of a trilateral relationship involving trade, transit and investments that pull in both our giant neighbours, India and China, to work closely for our development. While the Chinese leadership has come out in favour of the idea, New Delhi seems to have certain reservations about it. What is India’s position on this and if you do have reservations, what are they?
India has age-old, multi-faceted and time-tested partnership with Nepal. Our ties with Nepal have their own natural logic. The open border is its most unique characteristic. We remain open to any ideas, which will be mutually advantageous and enable economic development and well-being of the people of Nepal.
Kathmandu is home to Saarc headquarters and both Nepal and India have been strong proponents of Saarc over the years. Increasingly, India seems to be giving greater priority to alternative regional forums, such as Bimstec and BBIN. Where does this leave Saarc?
India continues to attach importance to cooperation within the framework of Saarc. However, no cooperation can take place in an environment of terror. Also, we do not see any competition between cooperation under the rubric of different regional and sub-regional organisations. For our accelerated socio-economic growth, we need to move forward under the framework of any regional or sub-regional organisation that is most suitable. Our interests lie in fast growth and development. We do not want to get bogged down by the processes or formats.
Any important messages that you would like to convey to our readers about the visit and the larger aspect of Nepal-India relations?
I am very happy to visit Nepal in this festive season of Tihar and Chhath. India attaches the highest priority to its relations with Nepal. The two countries have vital stakes in each other’s progress and well-being. India is committed to strengthening its partnership with Nepal and to extend all possible support for the all-round development of our excellent bilateral relations. As two sovereign nations, we wish to take forward our relationship on the basis of mutual trust and benefit. Also, India will remain a welcoming land for the people of Nepal.