In 2014, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Nepal twice within a gap of six months, and after a gap of 17 years by any Indian prime minister, he seemed to be introspective. This was a departure from the way senior bureaucrats handling the relationship between the two countries conducted themselves. India is unpopular in Nepal for several reasons despite being the biggest contributor in development and need. But Modi seemed to correctly diagnose the reason for India’s unpopularity. The gap between promise and delivery in executing bilateral projects was something he promised to address. As a result, the Nepal-India Joint Commission began meetings at the foreign minister level after a gap of more than two decades, with the last one taking place in Delhi on Thursday.
He is respected by the Maoists and other political forces that preferred radical changes in Nepal about a decade ago. India had then backed the radical Maoists who had raised arms against the state. India also took the initiative to bring them into the political mainstream. “We persuaded the political parties that resorted to the gun and violence, the Maoists in Nepal, that they give up violence, participate in mainstream national political activities. They agreed, heard our political advice and now in collaboration with other democratic parties, they have formed the government,” Mukherjee told Al Jazeera on January 27, 2009. He was India’s foreign minister then. Mukherjee’s statement was the first official confirmation from the Indian establishment about its mediation in Nepal.
Dahal who was the prime minister when Mukherjee made the revelation, is prime minister again and will be welcoming a guest who is seen as a close friend and guide by the secular-republican forces in the country, led by the Maoists and the Nepali Congress, the two parties that Mukherjee played a key role in bringing together. The BJP establishment, in contrast, is seen as an “ally of the regressive” forces in Nepal. The UPA government continues to face an accusation that it aligned with the forces in Nepal that were the “biggest threat” to India’s internal security.
With the situation in Nepal getting worse after the transition in 2006, India gets a good deal of criticism in the country. Mukherjee could be seen as someone who initiated an experiment that proved costly for Nepal. The sentiment could exacerbate with the recent bitterness in bilateral relations. Nevertheless, the fact that Dahal chose to declare the date of Mukherjee’s arrival as a national holiday, and did not extend that courtesy to Modi, is an indicator of his preference. But after all, a ceremonial president will only be conveying the message of his government, and does not have much leeway to promote a different line of diplomacy. However, he will definitely be using the goodwill he commands to promote Indian as well as bilateral interests.
On August 15, Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli made a friendly gesture towards India by telephoning Prime Minister Narendra Modi to convey greetings on India’s Independence Day. This should be welcomed. This was followed by a meeting of the India-Nepal Joint Project Monitoring Committee on August 17 chaired by the Indian Ambassador to Nepal and the Nepal Foreign Secretary.
The committee was set up to review progress in the large number of bilateral cooperation projects. An India-Nepal Joint Commission meeting at the level of Foreign Ministers is due later in October but may be held virtually due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. But will the two sides hold Foreign Secretary-level talks on the vexed boundary issue that is related to Kalapani and Susta?
Reversing history selectively may seem tempting but it can open a Pandora’s box which may have irretrievably negative consequences for what Mr. Dixit rightly describes as “the most exemplary inter-state relationship of South Asia”.
For India, more than the exemplary inter-state relationship, it is the unique people-to-people relations between India and Nepal; and, fortunately, inter-state relations have been unable to undermine the dense affinities that bind our peoples together. While India should reject the Nepali state’s ill-conceived territorial claims, it should do everything to nurture the invaluable asset it has in the goodwill of the people of Nepal.