On his first visit abroad after assuming office, Nepalese Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda” visited India from September 15-18, 2016. This was his second visit to India as prime minister (he was previously the prime minister of Nepal in 2008-09). Speaking at the felicitation program organized by the India Foundation in New Delhi on September 17, Prachanda remarked, “I am visiting your country second time as prime minister, exactly after eight years, the affection got more generous; the assurances have got more genial; enthusiasm is enormous; and hope is high.”
Prachanda underlined the Nepalese government’s deep commitment to strengthening ties with India. Certainly, the choice of India for the first visit by the prime minister of Nepal was a smart move to reinforce India-Nepal special relations. Indeed, Prachanda sent special envoy Bimalendra Nidhi, who is the Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister in the new Cabinet, less than two weeks after the formation of the government. With his “two most powerful weapons — determination and optimism,” Prachanda injected a lot of positivity in Delhi-Kathmandu relations and underlined that India-Nepal relations have become more extensive and multidimensional in the 21st century. He had extensive discussions with his counterpart prime minister Narenda Modi on the entire gamut of Indo-Nepal relations in an atmosphere of trust and understanding. What was the significance of this visit and does it carry the stamp of the “Modi Doctrine”?
Although the impasse in Delhi-Kathmandu relations (which lasted approximately five months) ended with the six-day visit of then Nepalese Prime Minister KPS Oli to India in February 2016, all has not been well between the two countries. Oli extensively used the anti-India card for his governance failures and strained relations with India. Nepal is a hotbed of conspiracy theories that blame all internal problems on its southern neighbour. The trust deficit towards India is incited by sections of the Nepalese elite who believe their political fortune is tied to defining their nationhood and interests in opposition to India. In fact, there is a set pattern of the Kathmandu regime flashing the China card whenever it runs into difficulties with its own people. Provoking anti-India nationalism is used to ensure regime security and garner Chinese support at the cost of eroding traditional ties with India. Oli began courting China immediately after assuming his post and took advantage of India’s apprehensions regarding China’s growing influence. A strong anti-India stand by Oli resulted in a nosedive in India-Nepal relations. Although Oli’s visit to Delhi was important for both countries to repair the damage, it did not restore the momentum.
Nonetheless, Delhi’s “geographical trump card,” Indian External Affairs Minister Sushama Swaraj’s “Quiet Diplomacy,” and the realization by Nepalese politicians of the limitations of the “China card” against its southern neighbour created a suitable environment between India and Nepal to restore the momentum. Oli could not withstand the political difficulties and resigned. Prachanda formed the new government with the support of the Nepalese Congress and smaller Madhes-based parties. In an interview, he remarked that Oli’s “one-sided, ego-centric and self-centered” approach had led to misunderstandings and the deterioration of India-Nepal relations. Prachanda has the uphill tasks of amending the new Constitution, expediting post-earthquake reconstruction work, and improving socio-economic development and governance in Nepal. Hence, his India visit was a careful and politically correct move. Certainly, Prachanda’s visit to India has created the right atmosphere to resume the momentum generated after the visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and India’s swift assistance after the tragic earthquake.
Outlining specific aims of his visit to India, Prachanda briefed the Nepalese Parliament that his visit would focus on the implementation of prior agreements with India, mainly on developing economic and physical infrastructure projects, and strengthen mutual trust. There was a realization in Nepal that politically and economically, it is heavily southward-oriented. Furthermore, its foreign trade is largely dependent on access to and through India, not China. Some flexibility shown by the Nepalese government in amending the new Constitution paved the way for the easing of tensions between India and Nepal. India welcomed the developments as positive steps that can help create the basis for a resolution of the current impasse. Delhi was also aware of ground realities and anti-India sentiments which were detrimental to strong relations between the two countries, and hence, India was looking for a way to restore normalcy.
In an effort to build political connectivity, the Modi government has shown zeal and vigor in engaging India’s neighbors at the highest political level. Modi understands the significance of political relations along with economic initiatives. Hence, the Indian government under his leadership is consciously making efforts to improve political connectivity along with economic and other aspects. India kept communication channels open with Nepal including political engagements. Further, New Delhi is also actively engaging state governments in foreign policy manoeuvres and encouraging them to engage in a meaningful way. Prachanda’s visits to the Nathpa Jhakri hydro-electric power project in Himachal Pradesh and the Food and Herbal Park at the Patanjali Yogpeeth near Haridwar could be seen as efforts to promote relations with the Indian states. The Chief Minister of Bihar also met the Nepalese prime minister and they discussed important issues of cooperation. While there have been consultations with state governments in the past, centralized foreign policy making is facing resistance from various state governments. Hence, Modi’s approach is to develop a political framework — external and domestic — and also the federalization of Indian foreign policy.
Prachanda’s visit would focus on the implementation of prior agreements with India, mainly on developing economic and physical infrastructure projects, and strengthen mutual trust.
For a sustained economic growth, India needs a peaceful periphery. Hence, the primacy of the neighborhood in foreign policy making is obvious. Speaking at the general debate of the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Modi aptly remarked, “A nation’s destiny is linked to its neighborhood. That is why my government has placed the highest priority on advancing friendship and cooperation with her neighbors.” India’s ability to manage its immediate neighborhood is a critical component in fulfilling India’s desire to be a responsible stakeholder in regional and global affairs. The Modi government has clearly indicated its priority for building stronger ties with its neighbors including Nepal. The Indian government seems persistent in its approach towards building a peaceful, stable, and economically inter-linked neighborhood which is essential for the collective development and prosperity of the South Asian region.
India-Nepal relations have the imprint of the evolving “Modi Doctrine.” Modi has introduced the five new pillars of Indian foreign policy namely, Samman (dignity and honor), Samvad (greater engagement and dialogue), Samriddhi (shared prosperity), Suraksha (regional and global security) and Sanskriti evam Sabhyata (cultural and civilizational linkages). If we take a look at Prachanda’s visit to India using this framework, we find consistency in Modi’s foreign policy approach.
The India-Nepal joint statement, media statements by both the prime ministers, and remarks made by the prime minister of Nepal at the felicitation program organized by the India Foundation demonstrate all five pillars of Modi’s foreign policy panchamrit. In his joint media briefing, Prachanda remarked that he had been overwhelmed by the warm welcome and generous hospitality of the Government and friendly people of India. Indeed, India’s political, social, and diplomatic connectivity enforced trust between the two countries and Prachanda underlined India’s approach as a “natural reflection of our (India-Nepal) intimate and extensive relationship.” He added that Nepal and India are friends and are bound to remain friends. As close neighbors, the destinies of both countries are interlinked.
Both governments have set up functional institutional mechanisms for greater engagement and dialogue, including the revival after a gap of 23 years of the India-Nepal Joint Commission, and the setting up of the Eminent Persons Group on Nepal-India Relations. Similarly, the India-Nepal joint statement underlined that “both countries hold similar views on major international issues, including the comprehensive reforms of the UN and other international organizations, affecting the developing countries and work in close coordination with each other in the United Nations and other international fora.”
Prachanda acknowledged India’s generous development cooperation in vital infrastructure projects, health, education, and rural development. Both countries agreed to renew the Trade Treaty between India and Nepal in October 2016. To expedite the implementation of ongoing projects in a time-bound manner under bilateral economic and development cooperation, India and Nepal agreed to joint monitoring through an oversight mechanism comprising senior officials from the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu and the Government of Nepal. The progress of the India-Nepal cross-border rail projects — Jayanagar-Bijalpur-Bardibad and Jogbani-Biratnagar — was reviewed and both governments agreed on three additional cross-border rail projects. In addition to rail connectivity, additional air connectivity also figured in the discussions, and officials have been authorized to take that forward. Similarly, energy sector cooperation was an important agenda and both prime ministers reviewed the progress of major power projects and the joint development of the Master Plan for the cross-border interconnection for the period until 2035, and the Action Plan on power trade until 2025. In his media statement, Modi remarked that “peace, stability and economic prosperity of Nepal are our shared objective.” He emphasized that India stands ready and prepared to strengthen its development partnership with Nepal.
Security (bilateral, regional, and global) is the fourth pillar of Modi’s foreign policy panchamrit. Both prime ministers recognized that safe and secure societies are pre-conditions for achieving the shared objectives of development and strong economic growth. India-Nepal security interests are closely aligned and inter-linked. There are institutional mechanisms for close cooperation between the defence and security agencies of India and Nepal, and both prime ministers reiterated the inevitability of close security cooperation.
Finally, the India-Nepal friendship is time-tested and unique. The open-border “national treatment” granted to the nationals of the other country and long-standing familial links at various levels underline the exceptionally close interactions between these two neighbors. Agreements and cooperation in the field of reconstruction and renovation of historical monuments, religious tourism (developing the Buddhist and Hindu pilgrim circuits), and cooperation in traditional medicine, including the ayurvedic system of health care, are a few examples of the focus on the cultural and civilizational aspect.
Overall, the Nepalese prime minister’s latest visit to India was an essential political step and smart diplomacy. It could be very helpful in re-generating momentum in India-Nepal relations, and in the words of Indian prime minister Modi, “write a new and glorious chapter” of the India-Nepal partnership. There are clear imprints of the evolving “Modi Doctrine” on the India-Nepal partnership. The Delhi-Kathmandu relationship is full of opportunities, but there are anxieties and challenges. Much will depend on the political understanding among the leaders and the time-bound delivery of promises on both sides. Prachanda aptly remarked in his speech at the India Foundation that to infuse India-Nepal relations with more substance and to contextualize this relationship as per the needs of the 21st century, both countries require more synergies and they need to capitalize on their strengths.