Bilateral tiesDahal should seize the historic opportunity to shape Nepal’s long-term relations with India
Through his special envoy Bimalendra Nidhi, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal has conveyed to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi the new government’s readiness for constitutional amendment to address the demands of the Madhesis and Janajatis. Dahal highlighted this message in his letter to Modi because he believes that India will be happy if issues related to the Madhes are resolved. Obviously, demands of the Madhes-based parties should be addressed without any delay. Dahal also conveyed to his Indian counterpart that high-level visits between the two countries and development are other two priorities of the present government.
The point of concern, however, is that some incidents and speeches of top leaders are determining our bilateral relations. In the past few years, temporary issues are becoming the yardsticks with which the strength of bilateral ties are measured. For example, it seems that relations between Nepal and India soured only because the previous prime minister KP Oli was not ready to address the demands of the Madhes-based parties. And bilateral ties have improved now as the new government is ready to address those demands. Relations between the new government and India can once again turn sour if there is no progress in addressing the demands. It is clear that India believes turmoil in the Madhes will heighten its security concerns, so it wants an early solution to the Madhes-crisis.
However, the Madhes should not be a dominating factor in determining the age-old relations between the two countries. Similarly, a change in government, some incidents on the border and transient events should not determine overall bilateral relations. Instead of merely giving an impression that he has a good relationship with India, Dahal should concentrate on keeping bilateral ties cordial over the long haul. He should prepare a vision paper on how the relationship between the two countries can assume a normal course despite some momentary setbacks. Dahal has a historic opportunity to shape Nepal’s long-term relations with India.
Hitherto, the Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1950 is the main basis of relations between the two countries. All successive governments after 1993 are raising this issue with the Indian side. They have been arguing that there is a need to amend the treaty to make it equally beneficial for the two countries.
This means that all the major parties are ready to amend the treaty. Now, Dahal’s task is to hold talks with the major parties and prepare a draft proposal on how Nepal wants to amend the treaty. Indian policymakers and diplomats, however, claim that Nepal is not implementing the key provisions of the treaty.
The proposal prepared on the basis of all-party consensus should be handed over to Indian Prime Minister Modi. There is now an Eminent Persons Group set up to review the entire gamut of Nepal-India relations and it will suggest ways to amend the treaty. But without a clear political blueprint, it cannot function properly. While India is suggesting that Nepal bring a proposal on treaty amendment, Nepal is not doing so.
Dahal should also take some concrete steps to bring more Indian investment into the country. India is pressing for the implementation of Bilateral Investment Protection and Promotion Agreement (BIPPA) signed between the two countries five years ago. We should welcome Indian investment in big projects without undermining our national interests.
In the meeting of the Inter-governmental Committee (IGC) between the commerce Secretaries of the two countries, the Indian side raised the issue of security of Indian investment in Nepal. Another prominent agenda is the export of Nepali goods in India. The meeting of the IGC in 2013 and 2016 ended without making much headway. This issue should be resolved through a high-level political dialogue between the countries during the official visits.
The Indian side has urged the Nepali side to make labour laws strong so as to prevent frequent protests and disturbances in industrial areas. Dahal has rightly conveyed to the Indian side that he wants to focus on development this time, and he needs to assure them that there is a good investment climate in Nepal. He should tell the Indian leadership that Nepal needs massive investment from both India and China. At the same time, he needs to convey that India’s security concerns will be addressed.
The long-pending border dispute, which has always been a cause of friction between Nepal and India, should be resolved at the earliest. India and Bangladesh resolved their boundary dispute last year. Nepal and India should also work to resolve the Kalapani and Susta disputes through high-level dialogue. In 2014, both sides agreed to resolve the boundary dispute through talks at the foreign secretary level, but there has not been any progress.
In his proposed nine-month tenure, Dahal could at least lay a foundation of a new kind of bilateral relations. Nepal-India ties should be confined to the relationship between the parties that form the government in the two countries. But the initial signs are not promising. It appears that Dahal just wants to get some support from India to provide additional amount to the earthquake victims and raise his popularity in Nepal.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who came to power in 2014 with a landslide election victory, is keen to make relations with neighbouring countries vibrant. For Nepal, it would be easier to resolve outstanding issues with India when a strong Modi-led government is in power. Modi has reportedly told Nepali leaders to come up with a clear vision on treaty amendment. Nidhi’s visit has laid the groundwork for a candid and open discussion. Nepal should seize the opportunity to resolve outstanding issues with India and take bilateral relations to new heights.
Bhattarai is The Kathmandu Post’s Delhi correspondent