Rollercoaster relationshipIndian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will complete three years in office on May 26. During this time, his administration’s foreign policy has drawn particular attention with its neighbourhood first policy.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will complete three years in office on May 26. During this time, his administration’s foreign policy has drawn particular attention with its neighbourhood first policy. However, Modi has faced internal criticism for failing to maintain cordial relations with some neighbours, particularly Nepal and Pakistan.
Modi started off with a flourish, inviting the heads of state or government of Saarc countries to his swearing-in ceremony to emphasise that India’s immediate neighbours were his priority. In 2014, Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Nepal in 17 years. He visited Nepal twice, in August and November. In Kathmandu, Modi charmed Nepalis from all walks of life with his address to Parliament. He also signed several bilateral agreements that had been pending for a long time. Modi let it be known that Nepal was always high on his list of priorities.
The resumption of the meetings of the Nepal-India Joint Commission, signing of a power trade agreement and opening up of long-pending issues were major milestones in bilateral ties. However, the friendliness didn’t last long. There are several reasons why relations between the two countries soured. The blockade, which was imposed soon after the promulgation of a new constitution, dragged ties to their lowest level, and India lost goodwill among the Nepali public. However, a section in India is yet to accept this reality. It whole-heartedly supported the demands of Madhes-based parties, but it severely hurt the rest of the country’s population.
In fact, relations had already started to become strained before the blockade. Modi’s planned trips to the holy destinations of Janakpur, Lumbini and Muktinath were cancelled at the last moment. He was very hurt when the pilgrimages were called off without substantial reasons. This was when Nepal’s constitution drafting process was nearing completion, and India had urged that it should be done on the basis of consensus and not majority rule. Speaking at the inauguration of the National Trauma Centre in Kathmandu, Modi himself had stressed consensus.
After the Constituent Assembly passed the constitution on September16, 2015, India dispatched Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar to Kathmandu to ask leaders to delay its promulgation. India’s position was that the constitution should be promulgated after including Madhes-based parties in the process. However, Nepal went ahead with the promulgation of the constitution, which was done on September 20. India did not welcome it as a sign of its displeasure.
Of late, there have been positive developments in all areas of bilateral relations and cooperation. After a long period, both sides realised that there was a need to speed up the implementation of big development projects. Basically, India has faced public criticism that it takes over big projects in Nepal but does not complete them on time. Now several hydropower, road and connectivity projects are making progress. There was an agreement to set up a bilateral oversight mechanism during Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s visit to India last September, and it was formally established in October.
A joint mechanism led by Nepal’s foreign secretary and the Indian ambassador in Kathmandu is reviewing the progress made in bilateral projects. According to media reports, Indian Prime Minister Modi himself has been checking the progress of bilateral projects every three months, and he is keen to complete them as soon as possible. The bilateral mechanism has met three times already. In recent years, India seems to be giving priority to connectivity projects. The major ongoing connectivity projects are Tarai roads, cross-border railway linkages, development of integrated checkposts on the border, cross-border oil pipeline (the first in South Asia) and cross-border transmission lines. Three railway projects are under construction, and two additional lines have been announced by the Indian government.
Likewise, there is growing energy cooperation between the two countries. Nepal and India signed a historic power trade agreement in 2014, which was the basis of power cooperation between them. Following this agreement, construction of long-stalled hydropower projects has gathered momentum. India’s cabinet has approved an investment of Rs57.23 billion in the Arun-3 hydropower project. This is a major hydroelectric scheme in Nepal which has been stalled for the last two decades. India is currently supplying about 380 MW of electricity to Nepal.
India has realised that only promises will not help to enhance bilateral relations. That is why India’s entire focus now is on delivering on them. Instead of making new announcements, both sides have realised the importance of completing ongoing bilateral projects. India did not announce any new development aid or grant during recent high-level visits but focused on completing them. However, it is not certain if the current pace of development will continue. The political leadership of both countries should focus on continuing cordial relations.
India has been treading cautiously with regard to Nepal’s internal political situation. It has maintained a neutral position on local elections and constitutional amendment. India provided logistics support for the polls at the last moment, and has refrained from making comments on the political situation in Nepal. There is a growing feeling in India that bilateral relations should not be affected by political developments in Nepal. Another view is that India’s Nepal policy should be wide-ranging and not tilted in favour of a particular region.
Bhattarai is Delhi correspondent of The Kathmandu Post