Deuba leaving for Delhi today with eye on rebooting bilateral relationsSome deals plus inauguration of railway on the cards as the prime minister seeks to put ties back on track.
During Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s visit to India starting Friday, cross-border railway will be high on the agenda. Prime Minister Deuba and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi are scheduled to inaugurate the Kurtha-Jayanagar railway on Saturday, paving the way for the train to officially start chugging along the tracks between Nepal and India. And that carries symbolism, many say, as Deuba’s visit to the south has but one particular objective—demonstrating Nepal-India ties are “on track”.
This is Deuba’s first official foreign trip since he assumed office in July last year.
The visit also comes on the heels of Nepal’s ratification of the Millennium Challenge Corporation Nepal Compact, a $500 million American, which left Nepali polity sharply divided, and Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s three-day visit to Nepal.
But these are recent events.
This is the first visit by Nepali prime minister to India in three years, and this also comes as the first since the boundary row erupted following Nepal’s decision to publish a new map of the country depicting the Kalapani region within Nepali borders.
The erstwhile KP Sharma Oli had published the new map in response to Delhi’s publication of the Indian map showing the Kalapani region within Indian borders and opening of a road link via Lipulekh to Manasarovar in the Tibetan Autonomous Region in China.
Delhi took offence and called the move “cartographic assertion.”
The map was included in Nepal’s coat of arms through a constitutional amendment. The Congress voted in favour.
Observers say basically the first visit by the Nepal prime minister is aimed at rekindling the warmth in ties. According to them, in the last months of Deuba’s tenure, there has been a status quo when it comes to bilateral relations—they have neither deteriorated nor improved.
“There is no dearth of agendas to discuss with India,” said Bhekh Bahadur Thapa, a former foreign minister who has also served as Nepal’s ambassador to India. “The key issue is our bilateral ties are not satisfactory yet.”
According to Thapa, the boundary row continues to remain a major irritant while there has been no progress in the Eminent Persons Group’s report.
“Several bilateral issues, projects and past agreements have not moved ahead at a desired pace,” said Thapa. “So this visit could provide an opportunity for both sides to renew their commitments and efforts.”
Nepal’s prime ministers over the years have religiously stuck to the custom of making Delhi their first port of call after assuming office. Deuba was earlier in January scheduled to visit India to participate in the Gujarat summit. But the visit was cancelled after the business summit in Gujarat was postponed in the wake of rising Covid-19 cases.
Deuba first visited India as prime minister in February 1996. He was in India when the Maoists launched their armed struggle, at the leadership of Pushpa Kamal Dahal, after Deuba ignored their 40-point demand. The war would continue for a decade until 2006. This time when Deuba is visiting Delhi, he has become the prime minister for a fifth time, and Dahal is his coalition partner in the government. And, Deuba appears bent on saving the current coalition in an attempt to keep the main opposition CPN-UML in check.
The UML won the last elections in 2017 riding on party chair KP Sharma Oli’s ultranationalist plank in the wake of an Indian blockade.
Deuba is often seen as a leader who rarely speaks against India, unlike Oli who during his tenure not only called the Indian virus more lethal than any other and made a scathing comment against the Indian emblem of “satyameva jayate”, rubbing Delhi up the wrong way.
While Oli is seen as having leaned more towards China, the notion is opposite about Deuba.
Deuba’s tenure this time had gotten off to a bad start. Two weeks after he assumed office, a youth from Darchula fell into Mahakali while he was using an improvised cable crossing to get across the river, reportedly after Indian security forces untangle the metal cable.
Deuba got bad press for failing to take the issue up with Delhi. His government’s decision to form a committee to study border issues with China then offered his critics the grist to pounce on him, calling him a leader who is afraid to stand up to India.
At a meeting of the ruling coalition on Thursday, on the eve of his Delhi visit, leaders asked Deuba to raise the boundary issue, according to a participant.
“Participants also suggested that Deuba take up the issue of delays in receiving the EPG report by the Indian side,” the leader said.
“India’s one-sided encroachment on the Nepali side in Darchula and construction of structures that could divert the Mahakali river’s course were also discussed.”
Observers say if Nepal-India ties are not cold, it cannot be said that there is any warmth.
“The foremost job for the prime minister is to elevate relations,” said Indra Adhikari, formerly executive director at the Institute of Foreign Affairs, who writes on foreign policy and strategic issues. “One of the reasons ties have gone off the track is the longstanding boundary issue.”
According to her, a durable solution to the boundary dispute with India is a must.
“The Kalapani issue has been hanging for decades. It’s time both sides sat down together, activated all required mechanisms, presented the proof and evidence so as to sort it out, once and for all,” said Adhikari.
Deals on long-term projects are unlikely, as local elections have already been announced in Nepal, and two more elections—parliamentary and provincial—are due later this year. But, according to officials, besides the official opening of the Kurtha-Jayanagar railway line, a separate agreement related to technical cooperation in the railway sector is expected. Deuba and Modi will inaugurate the Solu corridor 132 kV double circuit transmission line project and would reach an understanding on power trading which will make it easier for Nepal to sell its energy in the Indian market, officials said.
According to a Foreign Ministry official, agreements on restoring earthquake-damaged 137 health posts with Indian assistance, early completion of the detailed project report of the Pancheshwar Development Authority and availability of Indian RuPay cards developed by the State Bank of India in Nepal are also expected.
Some observers say since Nepal and India share deep ties, both sides should try to seek novel ways to further enhance the bond, going beyond the customary deals and agreements.
“This visit should provide a renewed opportunity to understand each other’s concerns,” said Dinesh Bhattarai who has advised two prime ministers in the past on foreign relations. “Trust is key in any relationship. While Nepal should clearly put forward its concerns, India should lend an ear, in earnest.”
According to Bhattarai, since this visit from Nepal to India is taking place after a long gap, both sides must explore where they faltered and where they failed to identify the shortcomings.
“Ties can’t move forward unless there’s an intent and goodwill,” said Bhattarai. “As the world is witnessing geopolitical shifts, there is a need for both sides to discuss all dimensions when we are seeing a state of flux. We need to be clear if we are ready to assuage Indian concerns, if there are any.”
Sandwiched between India and China, Nepal often finds it difficult when it comes to maintaining a fine balance amid big geopolitical games. Kathmandu has already taken a strikingly different position than that of Delhi and Beijing on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
While India and China have stopped short of condemning Moscow, Nepal has sided with Ukraine, a position maintained by the United States and its allies. Soon after Nepal ratified the American grant, much to Beijing’s chagrin, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken rang up Deuba to discuss the Russia-Ukraine war.
Then Beijing came calling. Wang arrived in Kathmandu, via India where his rapprochement bid was pooh-poohed. In India too, Wang’s visit marked the first high-level one since the border skirmishes in the Galwan Valley in 2020.
On Thursday evening, India’s Ministry of External Affairs released a tentative itinerary of Prime Minister Deuba’s visit.
After landing in Delhi on Friday afternoon, Deuba is set to visit the headquarters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. In the evening, India’s Minister for External Affairs S Jaishankar will call on Deuba.
Deuba and Modi will hold a meeting and lead delegation-level talks on Saturday. On Sunday morning, Deuba will fly to Varanasi and return to Delhi in the afternoon to catch a flight to Kathmandu.
Some observers say the Nepal prime minister’s visit to India comes at an interesting time, as China and the US have occupied a huge space in foreign policy discourse in Kathmandu.
“Our prime minister received an invitation at a time when the Chinese foreign minister was set to arrive following Nepal’s decision to ratify the MCC,” said Khadga KC, a professor of International Relations at the Tribhuvan University. “I am wondering whether the official visit of the prime minister is the result of a series of recent events. This is one curious issue that we need to understand.”
According to KC, this visit by Deuba could be more optics than substance.
“His past records show, he tends to do things that suit him,” said KC. “Let’s see if this visit brings any positive results… in the larger interest of the country.”