PM’s India Visit Oli Lives Up To His Promise
Ritu Raj Subedi
Has Nepal-India relation reached newer heights following Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s visit to India? This question continues to surface in the media outlets with commentators describing Oli’s maiden trip to the southern neighbour in both positive and negative lights. This visit was important for both the countries as it sought to bury the hatchet between two strongmen – Oli and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, who enjoy sweeping mandate in their respective countries. Nonetheless, both the leaders treaded a cautious path to avoid potential diplomatic bloopers that may hit their fence-mending mission. At the outset, PM Oli found himself in a tight spot after India unilaterally announced the date of his visit because the visit timetable deprived him of attending the 2018 edition of BOAO Forum for Asia that was organised in China from April 8-11. The BOAO Forum would provide him an opportunity for selling his vision of nation-building to the top-notch leaders of Asia and muster their support towards this end. However, Oli accorded priority to India visit without reading India’s motive much. There lie domestic and geopolitical reasons to make New Delhi his first port of call. It was urgent for both leaders to improve personal as well as bilateral relations in the changed context. For Nepal, India is not a choice but a reality. Without thawing ties with India on an equal basis, the new dispensation is unlikely to achieve its much-vaunted goals of stability and prosperity.
It was Indian PM Modi, who made desperate efforts to make up with Oli after the latter secured resounding victory in the three-tier elections on the plank of patriotism, stability and prosperity. As the largest democracy, India would hardly go against the electoral wave that put Nepali communists in the driving seat of power. Besides, Nepal’s growing engagement with China has been a matter of tension for the Indian establishment, elites and media that have not yet shed their colonial mindset inherited from British Raj. They still harbour a notion that Nepal is India’s exclusive sphere of influence as well as a Himalayan frontier that serves as the buffer state against the ‘Chinese penetration’. So India wants to stop China’s increasing influence in its ‘yard’ at all cost. They are for developing their relations with Nepal in Bhutan model, not one that can execute their independent foreign policies and elevate themselves to a level of mediating between the two giant neighbours.
It was compulsion for Indian PM Modi to improve sour relations with Oli in changing geopolitical dynamics in the region. A noted orator, Modi heaped praise on Oli, calling him ‘a leader of bold vision,’ and added Oli’s motto of Samriddha Nepal Sukhi Nepali (Prosperous Nepal Happy Nepali) was in sync his own vision of Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas (Collective Efforts Inclusive Growth). In his first visit to Nepal in 2014, Modi had used the images of ‘Pani’ (water) and ‘Jawani’ (youth) to electrify the hearts of Nepalis. This time he used the metaphors of Sagaramatha (Mt Everest) and samundra (sea) to highlight Nepal’s connectivity with the sea. The two sides agreed to develop inland waterway connection. Detractors see the deal the other way around. It has been interpreted as a response to Nepal’s historic trade and transit treaty with China, which had in principle granted Nepal an access to the international waters. Then, another accord on opening railway tracks from Raxual in India to Kathmandu has been described as India’s another connectivity strategy to answer the much-talked about Kerung-Kathmandu railway to be built under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Given the bad track records of the implementation of India-aided projects, optimism does not run high here with regard to the construction of Raxaul-Kathmandu railway services. Seen positively, these developments are propitious for Nepal’s growth of trade and development. Nepal welcomes both neighbours as long as they compete for Nepal’s development. But Nepal can hardly withstand if an elephant and a dragon fight on the fragile land for their own geopolitical interests.
For Oli, ‘ship’ and ‘rail’ have become new development imageries to overcome Nepal’s landlocked position and high economic dependency on India. And Modi seemed to have struck a right note by reaching agreements on rail and water connectivity with Nepal to win Oli. While critics dismiss them as fanciful notions, Oli had pledged to realise them during his election campaign. This stands as a litmus test for him during his second term in office
PM Oli did not let us down. He successfully upheld the nation’s independent image while holding talks with the Indian side. Unlike some past Nepali PMs, who used to act as supplicants before their Indian counterparts and beg for favour, Oli presented himself as the PM of a sovereign nation and candidly put up Nepal’s all genuine concerns, underlining the need for building political trust between them first to expedite the development projects to be constructed under the Indian funding. Perhaps for the first time, the joint statement of the two nations made no reference to the internal affairs of Nepal. India changed its diplomatic tone by refraining itself from the Madhes and constitutional issues of Nepal. “The two Prime Ministers resolved to work together to take bilateral relations to newer heights on the basis of equality, mutual trust, respect and benefit,” said the 12-point joint statement. A score of deals and initiatives were made during the visit in order to boost the relations between the two states sharing a common civilisation.
However, there is no reason to be euphoric about the achievements of the visit. The positive gesture and amicability, shown by India, should be translated into action. It is imperative for the southern neighbour to drop its Sinophobic attitude and stop evoking ‘China factor’ in the bilateral relations between Nepal and India. This writer mentions this point in view of the warning of some Indian media and intellectuals that their country might not buy electricity generated from China-funded hydropower projects in Nepal and re-stoke the Madhes issue if Nepal goes on deepening its relations with China and Pakistan. As an independent nation, Nepal is free to execute its foreign policies and relations with other nations based on its national interest and international laws. And in the 21st century, no power should attempt to impose hegemony on smaller neighbours and nations.