India spy chief visited Nepal last week. Questions remain if Delhi has handed its Nepal policy to the spooksGoel came as Indian prime minister’s envoy, say leaders close to Oli, but analysts say envoys’ visits are announced beforehand and that it was not the case with his trip to Kathmandu last week.
It has been a week since Samant Goel, chief of India’s top spy agency Research and Analysis Wing, came for a whirlwind visit to Kathmandu. But its reverberations continue.
Observers and political leaders have questioned whether New Delhi has handed over the responsibility of setting its Nepal policy to the intelligence agency leaving aside the political and bureaucratic machinery.
Former Nepali ambassador to India Lokraj Baral says it is up to the individual country to make use of the state apparatus when it needs.
“But it matters which state apparatus is being used—and how and when. The question is why did the Indian government not send its foreign minister or secretary as its emissary,” said Lok Raj Baral, author of books on Nepal-India relations and Nepal’s former ambassador to India. “What urgency led to the sending of Goel on a special flight?”
Goel, who came with the message of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, was the senior most Indian official to visit Nepal after a boundary dispute between the two countries escalated since November last year.
Usually it is the Indian Ministry of External Affairs that handles the country’s external relations, and diplomats are given charge as envoys to discuss matters with foreign countries.
But for the first time, Goel, the chief of India’s spy agency, was by admissions of Nepal’s top ministers designated “envoy”.
Deputy Prime Minister Ishwar Pokhrel and Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali, as well as Chief Minister of Lumbini Province Shanker Pokharel who is also a close confidante of Oli, wrote on social media that Goel had come as an “envoy” of Indian Prime Minister Modi.
In international diplomatic practice, if a country sends an “envoy” to another country, it announces beforehand that it is sending an envoy. But when Goel came, there had been no such announcement.
Rajan Bhattarai, foreign relations adviser to Prime Minister Oli, said that Nepal could not refuse if India chose to send Goel to deliver the message of the Indian prime minister to his Nepali counterpart.
Bhattarai refused to admit that India had handed over its foreign policy decisions vis-a-vis Nepal to its intelligence agency.
“I do not think that India has handed over its Nepal policy to R&AW just because its chief visited Nepal,” Bhattarai told the Post. “He came with the prior knowledge of our government and with permission for his special aircraft. It was the decision of the government of India [to send him] and was dispatched by Modi. All due protocol and decorum were followed in the meeting.”
Since Nepal-India flights remain suspended, Goel took an Indian Air Force plane to land in Kathmandu. According to sources, India had sought permission for the flight via Nepal’s Foreign Ministry which had subsequently asked the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal to make necessary arrangements.
The Foreign Ministry, however, was not in the know of the meeting between Oli and Goel. Nor was there any representative of the ministry to ensure the institutional memory of the meeting.
Oli’s over two hours long meeting with Goel has been labelled “against diplomatic norms” within his own ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP). While there were three officials on the Indian side, Oli was alone with no representation from the Foreign Ministry, according to the sources.
Though both sides are officially silent over the content of the discussion between Oli and Goel, sources inside the ruling party said that India’s security concerns, positions on boundary issues, holding high-level visits in the days to come and other regular issues were discussed.
In his message to Oli, Modi noted that India was committed to resolving the boundary dispute through dialogue and the strained ties between the two countries were heading in a positive direction, said Bhattarai.
Oli, on his part, told Goel that Kathmandu wants to advance ties with India and offered holding talks at various levels to resolve the boundary dispute through consensus, according to sources close to Oli.
Oli had hosted dinner for Goel, discussed in depth about India’s foreign policy priorities and strategic interests and his personal bond with Modi.
Goel’s visit came days before India hosted United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark Esper and signed a landmark defence pact as a clear signal to isolate China.
“Though we do not know the content of the meeting, we can assume that the Indian side must have discussed their boundary issues with China, India’s intent to normalise ties with Nepal, the changed global context and recent high-level visit from the US and apprising Nepal of India’s new foreign policy exercise that is in making,” said Baral.
On Tuesday, the United States and India signed a pact to share sensitive satellite and map data, as Pompeo warned of the threat posed by an increasingly assertive China.
The annual Washington-Delhi talks come at a time of heightened tension in the region, with Indian troops confronting Chinese forces on their disputed Himalayan border.
“Big things are happening as our democracies align to better protect the citizens of our two countries and indeed, of the free world,” Pompeo told reporters after the talks with Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, according to Reuters.
“Our leaders, and our citizens, see with increasing clarity that the Chinese Communist Party is no friend to democracy, the rule of law, transparency, nor to freedom of navigation, the foundation of a free and open, prosperous Indo-Pacific.”
The visit by Pompeo and Esper to India just ahead of the US election is also quite meaningful, say analysts.
Observers also point to the shifting geopolitics in Kathmandu. While it used to be the Indian ambassador that did the rounds meeting political leaders whenever there were signs of political instability, it was Chinese envoy Hou Yanqi earlier this year to do the trick when she met top leaders of the ruling communist party on two different occasions when Oli was under pressure to resign as prime minister and party chair.
Analysts see a similar pattern here.
Goel’s visit, nonetheless, paves the way for a number of high-ranking visits in the days to come.
Indian Army chief Manoj Mukund Naravane is scheduled to visit Nepal next week. During his three-day stay in Kathmandu, Naravane will be conferred the title of honorary general of Nepal Army, a traditional exchange between the armies of the two countries.
At least two or three more high-level visits are under consideration from both sides before the end of this year if things move in a positive direction, according to a senior official at the Prime Minister’s Office.
Following his election as prime minister in May 2014, Modi came to Kathmandu in August, 2014, becoming the first Indian prime minister to visit Nepal after a gap of 17 years, and again in November, 2014 to attend the summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and later in 2018.
Visits of presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers and other ministers of Nepal and India have come to a standstill since November last year when a fresh round of boundary dispute emerged after India published a new political map incorporating land belonging to Nepal but presently occupied by India.
Since then it was widely believed that Nepal-India ties are dealt with by the political and bureaucratic leaderships.
But with Goel’s dash last week, suspicions that India’s intelligence agency has reentered the scene or has come as a decisive force on Nepal matters have been raised. It was during the armed conflict and Nepal’s political transition up to 2016 that R&AW was active in Nepal’s politics.
According to Narayan Kaji Shrestha, former deputy prime minister and foreign minister, it seems that both sides want to see R&AW handle “the Nepal-India issues”.
“They [India] wish R&AW to handle our bilateral ties and it seems we have given a nod to them. They came openly with fanfare and we welcomed them,” said Shrestha, who is also the spokesman of the ruling party.
“The visit, though, was not known about beforehand to the party and we hadn’t discussed it. Even co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal was not aware of it.”