PM Deuba’s India Visit Expectations And Scepticism
Dr Narad Bharadwaj
The complicated geo-political setting in which Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has embarked on a five day long official visit of India is being viewed with a cautious optimism. Though his visit has been embellished with a usual rhetoric of being an opportunity for advancing Nepal-India relation to a new height, the geo-political dynamics which surround the context of this visit make its objectives unrealistically exaggerated.
Prime Minister Deuba has been visiting New Delhi in the wake of four important events which are likely to impact Nepal-India relation in a big way. They are- successful conclusion of the first and second phase of the local elections in Nepal, the failure of the constitution amendment bill in Nepal’s legislative parliament, the great floods that submerged a vast stretch of Nepal’s Terai region and the China-India standoff at the Doklam tri-junction.
The above mentioned events might look independent and unrelated with the high politics of diplomacy. But the element of awkwardness, which they have added in Nepal-India relation, is sure to be reflected in the ongoing visit of India by the Nepali Prime Minister.
Deuba’s visit to India also happens to coincide with a new low in Nepal-India relation in spite of the usual refrain of special relationship which has been repeatedly used as a magic mantra but has failed to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Prime Minister Deuba has gone to India not with a unified strength of a nation but with a weakened mandate caused by the defeat of his party in the two phases of the local elections and the failure of the constitution amendment bill in the parliament. These events have left a deep dent in Deuba’s armour.
The rejection of the constitution amendment bill has deprived the ruling coalition of the support from the Terai-based parties which it was using as a strategic plank to woo the electorates of theTerai. This has come as a severe strain on Deuba and his coalition partner CPN- Maoist Centre. The failure of the amendment motion carries meaning in this visit because India also had a stake in the amendment of the constitution. The refusal of India to welcome the promulgation of the new constitution had suddenly made it an issue of Nepal-India relation in addition to its being a contesting point of internal politics.
In this context, Deuba might be under pressure during his visit to Delhi to explain the Indian leaders about the logical next steps which the coalition government might take to cut the Gordian knot of the Madhes problem. Prime Minister Deuba has chosen to visit India when a host of old and new problems are vying for attention in the realm of Nepal-India relation. The main opposition party has, therefore, cautioned the Prime Minister to take up the pressing issues, such as the implementation of the old agreements signed between the two countries, including 6,000 MW Pancheshwor Hydropower Project signed 20 years ago whose Detailed Project Report (DPR) is yet to be finalized.
The question of revision of 1950 Peace and Friendship Treaty has also remained a perennial talking point with India without showing any sign of a breakthrough. Prime Minister Deuba is expected to bring this issue also under discussion with his counterpart.
Of late, the problem of inundation of Nepal’s Terai has started to come up as a serious issue between Nepal and India. Experts say that the increasing instances of inundation are due to border dams constructed on the Indian side within 12 kilometres of Nepal-India border. Deuba has a tremendous pressure to raise the issue of inundation and the potential risk from other aging barrages constructed half a century ago with India’s grant assistance.
Prime Minister Deuba’s task list also includes the demand for removal of India’s consulate office established in Biratnagar in 2008 as the purpose for which it was established no longer exists. It was established to facilitate the movement of Nepali vehicles through Indian territory when a part of Nepal’s east-west highway was damaged.
Yet, another issue of urgency needing discussion with India is the so-called bilateral energy policy which India has unveiled. According to this policy, India will buy hydro-electricity energy from Nepal only if it is produced with Indian investment. This kind of restriction is not only injurious to Nepal’s national interest; it is also against international norms of business transactions. Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba carries the obligation to raise this issue also if he wants to come back without tarnishing his image.
In spite of being close neighbours with longest history of diplomatic friendly relations, Nepal and India have also festering issues on border delineation. The issue of Lipu Lake tri-junction has assumed potentially inflammable dimension in the present context of dispute between India and China on the territorial sovereignty over Doklam region at Bhutan-China border. Prime Minister Deuba should not mince words in presenting Nepal’s position over the issue.
Shimmering border disputes at various other places has put Nepal–India relation on a fragile path. The process of border delineation at disputed areas has failed to gather momentum. Prime Minister Deuba might do well by at least putting forward Nepal’s concern on the question of Nepal’s sovereignty.
During Prime Minister Deuba’s visit to India, the Indian government might request Nepal to support her in regard to the border dispute between India and China. India has sent her troops on behalf of Bhutan and is in a desperate need of mustering international support for her act of challenging China’s assertiveness. It is expected that Prime Minister Deuba will remain unshaken from Nepal’s traditional policy of neutrality.
Nepal is a non-aligned country and is bound by the principles of UN Charter and the five principles of peaceful coexistence. It, in no account, can afford to take sides with any of the neighbours in matter of their dispute. It can, however, play a constructive role of a facilitator to encourage both the neighbours to come to negotiating table to settle their differences and find space for peaceful existence.
On his previous visit to India as a leader of the majority party, Prime Minister Deuba tarnished his image by indiscreetly sharing a forum in Goa with Lobsang Sangey, the prime minister of so called Tibetan Government in Exile in November 2016. In view of the previous experience, he should be constantly aware of the diplomatic red line and refrain from doing or saying anything that may show partiality in regard to the explosive situation that exist at Doklam tri-junction.
Nepal’s most essential survival strategy is to be able to carve out a strictly neutral path which helps foster cooperative engagement and minimise divergence of views with neighbours. Prime Minister Deuba will be able to create a new milestone if he succeeds in convincing the Indian leaders that Nepal wants to benefit from both the Belt and Road Initiative of China and neighbourhood first policy of India. If the Prime Minister does anything against the mandate given to him by the people, Nepal will be caught in the eye of a storm brewing in this region.