Shringla visit: Little of substance but something amid strained tiesBoundary issue, which was expected to prominently figure during meetings, was absent from the agenda, but officials say Shringla’s visit helps create an atmosphere for more high-level exchanges in future.
It was quite a charm offensive by the Indian foreign secretary.
Upon his arrival in Kathmandu, Harsha Vardhan Shringla spoke with the media–in Nepali.
“I wanted to come here long ago, but due to the Covid-19 pandemic that could not happen,” Shringla told reporters at Tribhuvan International Airport. “I am delighted to be here.”
Describing Nepal and India as “close friends”, Shringla said his meetings [with Nepali officials] will focus on taking the friendship forward.
Shringla is the senior most bureaucrat in the Narendra Modi government to visit Nepal in the last one year. His linguistic diplomacy was in full display which was read in Nepal as a clear message from Delhi that it is keen to effect a rapprochement with Kathmandu, exactly a year after the bilateral ties started to take a nosedive.
In early November last year, India published its new political map placing the Kalapani area, which Nepal has historically claimed as its own, within India’s borders. Kathmandu objected to the Indian move. Bilateral relations soured.
That particular issue, however, failed to figure at Shringla’s meetings with his Nepali counterpart Bharat Raj Paudyal and Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali.
“If you ask me what is the major takeaway from the Indian foreign secretary’s visit, then it is that both sides have agreed to improve the frayed bilateral ties and have decided to start afresh,” a senior official who was part of the Nepali delegation told the Post. “Both sides have agreed to continue dialogue and sort out all outstanding issues while exploring new areas of cooperation.”
According to the official, who did not wish to be identified, boundary dispute was not on the official agenda for the delegation level talks between Paudyal and Shringla.
Boundary issues have been a constant irritant between Nepal and India for years. India’s publication of the new map back in November placing the disputed territory within its borders had just opened an unhealed wound. But it was India’s inauguration of a road link via Lipulekh to Kailash Mansarovar of the Tibet Autonomous Region of China in the first week of May that caused more damage.
In response, the Oli government unveiled Nepal’s new political map depicting Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura within Nepal’s borders.
Delhi called the action “cartographic assertion”.
The Oli government has already got the new map adopted through Parliament by amending the constitution.
“[That’s why] the Indian position since the very beginning was that the boundary issue should not be on the official agenda,” said the official.
Delhi has rather tried to use the ongoing pandemic to enhance the bilateral ties, with a promise to provide all the support India can to Nepal.
During his meeting with Gyawali, Shringla handed over 2,000 vials of remdesivir to Nepal on behalf of the government of India as continuing assistance for Covid-19 patients.
“I had a very productive meeting with the foreign minister. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused the maximum global disruption since World War II. It has demonstrated the need for closer international cooperation,” Shringla told the media after his meeting with Gyawali. “Our gift today of 2,000 vials of remdesivir injection is part of our ongoing support to Nepal.”
Shringla said that he has conveyed to Gyawali that India will continue to extend assistance to Nepal as per its requirement.
“Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken the lead in promoting regional cooperation in response to Covid-19. He has also promised India’s support to our neighbourhood,” said Shringla.
“We will make Covid-19 vaccine accessible and affordable... and it goes without saying [that] the first priority [will be] for our closest neighbours like Nepal.”
Gyawali told the Post that he had “a very frank and open discussion” touching upon a wide range of issues, including the boundary dispute and receiving of the report of Eminent Persons’ Group on Nepal- India relations, among others.
Mandated to suggest a new blueprint of Nepal-India ties in the changed global and regional contexts, Nepal and India had formed the Eminent Persons Group in 2016, comprising four members each from both countries. It prepared its report in July 2018 with recommendations to both sides.
The report was supposed to be received by the prime ministers of the two countries.
The Group, however, has not been able to submit the report, largely due to, according to sources in Nepal and India, Indian prime minister’s “busy schedule”.
Sources say the Indian side has some reservations, particularly on the issue of open border, due to which it has been reluctant to receive it.
On the boundary row, Gyawali said the two countries “will gradually enter into the issue”.
“We have put forth all our concerns,” said Gyawali. “We have also agreed to promote positivity in the bilateral ties by avoiding negativity.”
Issuing a statement in the evening, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that both sides reviewed various aspects of Nepal-India relations covering trade, transit, connectivity, infrastructure, energy, agriculture, investment, culture and people-to-people relations.
“The two sides also reviewed with satisfaction the progress made with regard to bilateral cooperation projects, including the key connectivity projects and post-earthquake reconstruction work,” said the ministry. “They also discussed the boundary matters and exchanged views on completing the boundary work in the remaining segments.”
According to the ministry, the two sides shared their experiences on the efforts made to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. “They discussed matters related to cooperation in the context of the progress made by India towards the development of Covid-19 vaccine.”
Shringla’s two-visit to Nepal started with his meeting with Paudyal.
Both sides said the meeting happened in a cordial manner and that it was quite fruitful and that all issues related to bilateral relations were discussed.
“We had a very productive and useful exchange. Very large number of issues of bilateral cooperation we went through,” Shringla told reporters after his meeting with Paudyal. “It shows the multifaceted and comprehensive nature of our cooperation. We both agreed on various steps to advance some of the areas of cooperation. We are looking at other initiatives that could happen.”
Shringla on Thursday also called on Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli including one-on-one.
Oli’s foreign relations adviser told the Post that during the meeting, Shringla communicated Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s message that India attaches importance to its relations with Nepal and that India is ready to take forward the bilateral ties to a new height through talks and dialogue.
“We want to upgrade our bilateral relations with India matching with the [needs of] the 21st century so we also want to resolve some of our misunderstandings through dialogue,” Rajan Bhattarai, the prime minister’s foreign relations adviser, quoted Oli as telling Shringla.
“We have some issues and problems but we want to resolve them through talks. The problems we are facing on boundary fronts are not created now or by us. These are the burdens we have been carrying from history so we are eager to sit for dialogue and resolve them amicably.”
Shringla on Thursday also paid a courtesy call on President Bidya Devi Bhandari.
According to the Foreign Ministry, matters of mutual interests were discussed during the meeting.
With Shringla’s visit, preceded by the visits of chiefs of the Indian Army and India’s foreign spy agency over the last few weeks, expectations are now that Nepal-India ties will be back on track.
“Shringla’s visit has created a very positive atmosphere for more high-level bilateral visits and exchanges in the future,” said Bhattarai.