On boundary row, brief talk with no concrete resolutionDeuba and Modi renew commitment to better bilateral ties and enhance cooperation on energy, connectivity. Experts term the visit a confidence booster.
Four deals and inaugurations of cross-border railway, a transmission line and Indian digital card RuPay were the highlights of the high-level delegation meeting between Nepal and India Prime Ministers Sher Bahadur Deuba and Narendra Modi on Saturday.
There, however, was curiosity among Nepal-India watchers whether the two countries would take a substantial step to resolve the boundary issue, a constant irritant in bilateral ties.
Though there was no announcement of any mechanism to deal with the outstanding boundary issue, new or old, according to Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, there was a sense that both sides should address it through discussion and dialogue.
While addressing the joint conference after the delegation-level talks, Deuba said that he had raised the boundary issue with Modi.
“We discussed the boundary matters and I urged him [Modi] to resolve them through established mechanisms,” said Deuba.
Modi, however, made no mention of boundary matters while addressing the press conference. The Eminent Persons Group report also didn’t figure in the talks, officials said.
Though the row over the Kalapani region is decades old, it emerged as a big issue in November 2019 when Delhi showed it within the Indian territory in its new map. The then KP Sharma Oli government objected to the Indian move but talks at the diplomatic level could not take place. In May 2020, the Oli government, in response to India’s inauguration of a road link via Lipulekh to Kailash Mansarovar in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, unveiled Nepal’s new map showing the Kalapani region within the Nepali territory.
After the delegation-level talks between Deuba and Modi, Shringla said that there was a general understanding on resolving the boundary issue.
While addressing a press conference, Shringla said that the issue was “briefly discussed”.
“There was a general understanding that both sides needed to address this in a responsible manner through discussions and dialogue in the spirit of our close and friendly relations,” said Shringla. “Politicisation of such issues needs to be avoided.”
But an Indian statement issued after Deuba-Modi talks, however, is silent on the boundary issue.
A Nepali diplomat told the Post over the phone from New Delhi that they were expecting that the two prime ministers would direct the competent authorities of both the countries to look into the outstanding matters and forward a way to resolve them.
“But that could not happen,” said the diplomat. But the Indian side, according to the diplomat, appears to have realised that the issue needs to be addressed sooner or later.
“No understanding has been reached though on how the countries will attempt to deal with the issue and how and when the meetings of the bilateral mechanism(s) would take place,” said the diplomat.
To deal with the boundary row in Susta and Kalapani, Nepal and India have mechanisms at the foreign secretary and technical levels. There is also a separate Boundary Working Group (BWG) mandated to complete the boundary works along Nepal and India except for Susta and Kalapani.
Besides the boundary issue, there was no concrete outcome on some other projects like Pancheshwar Multipurpose Project, Upper Karnali Hydro-electricity project currently being developed by India’s private developer, GMR, postal road projects and some other pending projects funded by India.
Modi, during the joint press conference, however, said that they want to expedite the Pancheshwar project which could be a gamechanger in the region.
Former foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali said when he visited India in January 2021, both sides had spoken in the same manner that the border issue should not be politicised and that it should be brought into the formal channel for its resolution.
“But that could not happen. If we do not take any concrete steps toward resolving this issue, its effect will spill over on the streets,” Gyawali told the Post. “So we have to initiate concrete steps to resolve the issue before it gets more complicated.”
The Indian side said that India’s relationship with Nepal is one of the main pillars of its “Neighbourhood First” policy.
“The visit of Prime Minister of Nepal to India will contribute to further cementing the traditional and age-old ties of friendship and cooperation between the two countries,” India’s Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement.
While highlighting the four pacts signed on Saturday between Nepal and India, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar tweeted: “Neighbourhood First—A foreign policy with a difference. Its impact on the ground today.”
Madhu Raman Acharya, a former foreign secretary who has also served as an ambassador, said that since issues had accumulated between Nepal and India over the last few years, this visit has at least helped to break the ice. Therefore, it should be considered important, he added.
“Since the visit was happening on a short notice, I wonder if officials had enough time for preparations. But this visit marks the resumption of communication after a gap at the highest level,” said Acharya. “Now it is the lower level that should take up bilateral matters and follow what was discussed during the visit. One must remember that one visit after a hiatus of three years cannot provide solutions in one go.”
During their meeting, Deuba and Modi touched upon a wide range of issues, including promoting connectivity and infrastructure through roads, railways, pipelines, transmission lines and air services, according to a separate statement from Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“During the meeting, the prime minister of Nepal requested the prime minister of India for additional air entry routes from Mahendranagar, Nepalgunj and Janakpur,” the statement read. “Similarly, the two prime ministers welcomed the recent signing of a memorandum of understanding on supply of urea and DAP from India to Nepal on government-to-government arrangement.”
According to the ministry, Prime Minister Deuba requested the first consignment of 150,000 metric tons of fertilisers to Nepal before the upcoming monsoon season.
Constantino Xavier, a researcher at the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, a Delhi-based think tank, said that Deuba’s visit has normalised the political track, showing maturity to deal with sensitive issues like the border dispute.
“Focus on connectivity and economic interdependence is turning the relationship special again,” Xavier told the Post in a brief interview. “The visit also reflects that the strategic connectivity approach is becoming a priority in India’s Nepal policy and gaining ground over the traditionally dominant but increasingly tactical and limited security approach.”
Nepal and India also came up with a Joint Vision Statement on Power Sector Cooperation. The statement covers bilateral cooperation in production, transmission and cross-border trading of hydropower under the framework of BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal) initiative. BBIN is considered an avenue of sub-regional cooperation under the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). India has been pushing BBIN for quite a while as a sub-regional initiative that works in areas like water resources management, connectivity of power, transport, and infrastructure.
During the high-level meeting, the Indian side shared that India would purchase hydropower from Nepal for which clearance process has already started.
“The two prime ministers noted that some landmark projects such as the Pancheshwar Hydropower Project have great potential in accelerating economic and development partnership,” said the Foreign Ministry. “Both sides emphasised the need for early finalisation of the detailed project report of the Pancheshwar project which will lead to the project’s execution for mutual benefit.”
Xavier believes the visit has boosted confidence in bilateral ties.
“The fact that outstanding issues and irritants vis-a-vis border and treaty were only informally discussed, and may be now taken up again through bureaucratic channels shows renewed political confidence on both sides,” Xavier told the Post.
“Deuba may have calculated that domestic costs of not bringing back clear results will be outweighed by benefits from possible Indian support for the next government formation.”
For India, however, according to Xavier, the approach may just be to wait and watch, keep all options open, and use summit to strengthen the long-term connectivity fundamentals of the relationship.
Deuba landed in New Delhi on Friday on a three-day visit. He is scheduled to fly to Varanasi on Sunday morning. He would return to New Delhi on Sunday afternoon to catch a flight to Kathmandu.
Deuba’s visit to India comes on the heels of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Delhi and Kathmandu, a month after Nepal ratified the Millenium Challenge Corporation, a $500 million American grant. Beijing had expressed its reservations about the US grant, which was approved by Nepal’s Parliament at a time when no projects under Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative have taken off.
The prime minister’s visit from Nepal to India also comes at a time when Delhi has increased its engagements in the neighbourhood, where Beijing was expanding its sphere of influence.
Xavier said that the way India is engaged with its neighbours in recent days also has a context to Deuba’s visit.
“The visit must also be understood in the context of India reclaiming much ground in the neighbourhood,” he said. “After a major achievement with Bangladesh, India’s response to the Sri Lankan crisis, and new initiatives in the Maldives, reflect that New Delhi remains a predominant player in South Asia.
India last month extended a $1 billion line of credit to Sri Lanka which is battling its worst ever economic crisis.
“China will eventually bounce back, but the last six months indicate fragilities that have been noted in Kathmandu, Dhaka, Colombo and Male,” said Xavier.
According to Acharya, the former foreign secretary and ambassador, every opportunity that comes along to interact with such an important neighbour should not be missed.
“Though we cannot say much about the outcome of the visit, this has certainly created a good environment and generated goodwill to work together in the future,” Acharya told the Post.
“As per the spirit of the talks and understanding reached at the highest political leadership, now officials from both sides should continuously do follow-ups and speed up execution of agreements.”