Deuba returns home from India trip with pilgrimage to KashiVisit may be trust-building bid but many view it differently amid geopolitical flux and evolving Nepal-India relations.
Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba on Sunday evening returned home after completing a three-day official visit to India. While concluding his first official foreign trip since he assumed office in July last year, Deuba on Sunday morning flew to Varanasi, also known as Kashi, from New Delhi to return to the Indian capital later in the afternoon to catch a flight to Kathmandu.
In Varanasi, Deuba, along with his spouse Arzu Deuba and four of his ministers, performed a puja at Kal Bhairav and Kashi Vishwanath.
On Saturday in Delhi, Prime Minister Deuba held talks with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi. At least four deals were signed between Nepal and India while both Deuba and Modi renewed commitment to enhance bilateral ties and increase cooperation in the field of energy and connectivity.
On Friday, after reaching Delhi, Deuba visited the headquarters of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and met with its national president JP Nadda, piquing curiosity among some Nepal-India watchers.
Those who have followed Nepal-India relations and Deuba’s recent visit to India say the prime minister’s trip to the south is significant in multiple terms. According to them, the visit marks a much-needed resumption of engagement between the two countries, it also sets the tone for how the ruling Nepali Congress, Prime Minister Deuba’s party, takes its relations forward with the regime in Delhi and the party that governs the world’s largest democracy.
Experts and observers say Deuba’s visit to India helped build trust and confidence at the highest political level which is the major outcome of the visit.
“There was a lack of communication between Nepal and India at the highest political level after Nepal issued a new political map,” said Prem Khanal, an assistant professor at the Department of International Relations and Diplomacy at Tribhuvan University. “This visit has broken the status quo.”
Nepal-India ties hit a new low after the erstwhile KP Sharma Oli government unveiled a new Nepal map showing the Kalapani region within the Nepali territory. The move was prompted by India’s decision to build a road link via Lipulekh to Kailash Manasarovar, a Hindu and Buddhist religious site, in Tibet Autonomous Region of China.
Addressing a press conference at the Tribhuvan International Airport upon Deuba’s arrival from India, Foreign Minister Narayan Khadka focused on defending why the prime minister visited the Bharatiya Janata Party office on Friday evening.
“Deuba visited the BJP headquarters as the president of the Nepali Congress,” said Khadka. “He was not there as prime minister.”
Deuba’s visit to the headquarters of any Indian party was the first by a Nepali leader.
“The prime minister visited the BJP headquarters as the president of the Nepali Congress… as the president of a party. The only objective is building a party-to-party relationship. The Nepali Congress is expanding such relations with political parties in other countries as well.”
Deuba’s decision to drop by the headquarters of the BJP, a Hindu nationalist party in power in India, has received a fair share of criticism in Nepal, with some wondering if he breached the protocol.
Khadka also gave an overview of the visit while addressing the press conference. He said that the visit of the prime minister to India has taken bilateral relations with India to a new height.
“Due to the Covid pandemic, we were unable to organise any high-level visits. During this visit, we discussed a wide range of issues of mutual interest,” said Khadka. “The prime minister is confident that this visit has injected a dynamism into our bilateral ties.”
This was the first visit by a Nepali prime minister to India in about three years. The last time a Nepali prime minister visited the southern neighbour was in April 2018. But over the years, ties were not on the best of terms.
Deuba’s visit also comes at a time when Nepal is scheduled to hold three tiers of election this year, starting with local polls slated for May 13.
A Nepali diplomat said there was an urgent need to give an impetus to Nepal-India ties as there was a lack of communication.
“Building confidence at the highest political level had become imperative for the two countries to maintain good relations,” said the diplomat. “The visit has successfully helped build that trust. Now it is up to us how we take the development forward.”
Deuba’s visit to India came at a time when the United States, its $500 million grant and Beijing were occupying political discourse in Kathmandu, making Delhi uncomfortable if it was losing its influence in Nepal, one of its closest neighbours. While Deuba’s keenness to visit the southern neighbour is not a surprise—given that almost all prime ministers in Nepal make Delhi their first port of call—this time around it looked like India wanted Deuba to fly to Delhi.
Deuba earlier in January was also scheduled to visit India to participate in the Gujarat business summit. But the visit was cancelled after the summit was postponed in the wake of rising Covid-19 cases.
There are some who say Deuba made his visit a kind of ritual, also by taking a pilgrimage to Varanasi, but those who have followed Nepal-India relations stress that the prime minister’s trip to the south should be viewed from a wider perspective.
“The visit should be seen from a positive angle as it is helping rebuild trust,” said CD Bhatta, a political scientist who regularly writes on matters related to foreign policy and strategic affairs. “A visit at such a high level has become necessary.”
According to him, the visit has provided a scope for dialogue.
“It also enables the implementation of stalled projects. The visit certainly has provided an opportunity to the two countries to discuss outstanding issues and current geopolitical dynamics,” said Bhatta. “But much depends on how commitments are translated into actions from both sides.”