Good startIn his much anticipated visit that started on Friday, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli was received with much fanfare in New Delhi. In interviews before his visit, Oli had said that Nepal would assert its sovereignty and adopt a foreign policy independent of India.
In his much anticipated visit that started on Friday, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli was received with much fanfare in New Delhi. In interviews before his visit, Oli had said that Nepal would assert its sovereignty and adopt a foreign policy independent of India.
He had also identified a number of areas in India-Nepal relations that needed attention, including possible revisions to the 1950 Peace and Friendship Treaty.
However, Oli prudently chose not to raise such issues in his meetings with Indian leaders (there was one meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi where it is not clear what was discussed.) Instead, he was warm towards his hosts, stating simply that both countries should forget what had happened in the past and forge ahead in a spirit of cooperation. In line with his domestic agenda to fuel economic growth, he made careful efforts to woo Indian investors to Nepal.
The welcome that New Delhi provided Oli was very warm indeed. It was evident that the Indian government was very keen to make this an occasion that would make Oli well disposed towards India. Although they may not have stated explicitly, the visit provided an indication that Indian officials recognised Oli’s massive mandate in Nepal.
It was also evident that New Delhi was keen to maintain strong relations with Oli in line with its “neighbourhood first” policy, a move that is aimed at containing extensive Chinese engagement in South Asia.
Oli had promised before he left Kathmandu that he would focus more on the implementation of past agreements with India than on signing new ones. The joint statement (the two sides failed to release one during Oli’s last visit as prime minister in 2006) released by the two sides after his visit did indeed underline the need for “expeditious” implementation of bilateral projects and the reinvigoration of existing bilateral mechanisms.
In addition, however, three new major schemes were also announced. There was an agreement to partner in the agricultural sector. There was also an agreement to improve cross-border connectivity through inland waterways. But the agreement that is likely to attract the most attention in Nepal is the one to connect Kathmandu to the Indian border town of Raxaul by railway.
If actually established, such a rail link would have momentous consequences for connectivity between India and Nepal.
Oli’s visit has to be regarded as a success. Though the Oli aides kept on emphasising in Kathmandu that the visit would have “businesslike” agenda, it was primarily a “political” visit. After his early overtures towards Nepal, Indian Prime Minister Modi had gradually turned away from Kathmandu and had actually ordered a blockade over his displeasure with the new constitution.
Oli, meanwhile, had taken a defiant position as prime minister during the blockade and also reaped handsome electoral rewards in the elections late last year. For both, it was time to recalibrate their bilateral ties after a bruising battle—one had just been elected to office and the other had an important election to face next year.
No missteps or discordances have been heard of Oli’s visit so far, and the bonhomie seemed strong. Nonetheless, it cannot be expected that all issues in bilateral relations can be addressed through a single visit.
Overall, Oli’s visit did have huge symbolic value to lay the foundation for improved ties between the governments of India and Nepal, and has been projected accordingly in the joint press conference the two prime ministers addressed and the joint press statement released after the completion of the business leg of the visit.
The further deepening of the relationship will depend on the officials who will have to carry forward on the agreements signed and issues discussed during the visit.
The test will be in the implementation of both the past agreements and the ones that were just reached.
As a much larger neighbour, New Delhi will have to work especially hard to replace deep suspicions in Nepali minds and reset the bilateral ties with new expectations both the close neighbours so much deserve of each other.