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Modi drags his feet over Indo-Nepal report on improving ties

Recommendations By The Eminent Persons Group On Nepal-India Relations Gather Dust For Two Year As Modi Has ‘no Time’ To Look Into Them.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Nepalese counterpart Sher Bahadur Deuba during ceremonial reception at the Rashtrapati Bhawan in New Delhi, August 2017

Like Indian Prime Minister’s much-touted ‘Neighborhood First Policy’ which now lies in a shambles, a report on improving Indo-Nepal ties prepared by an eight-member joint panel of Eminent Persons’ Group (EPG), which was completed more than 24 months back, is in the limbo. The report was completed in July 2018 after nine rounds of meetings.

The report, which was set up with the ‘blessings’ of Modi and his then Nepalese counterpart Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress party,  has not yet been seen by Modi because he has not given an appointment to the panel to present it to him. The members of the panel are stuck for another reason: They had decided to give the report to the Nepalese Prime Minister after presenting it to the Indian Prime Minister.  

The EPG was formed for reviewing a number of prickly treaties and agreements between the two countries, including the India-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1950, which, among other things, gives free trade and access to the people of the two countries.

Ignoring of the panel’s report by Delhi has raised suspicions in Kathmandu, as the EPG was formed largely on Nepal’s request. The Indian side has repeatedly cited the tight schedule of PM Narendra Modi as the reason for the tardiness, but the Nepalese are not convinced. Kathmandu sees it as yet another ploy to buy time and appease India’s Madeshi constituency in Nepal.

The Indian government’s “reluctance or lack of interest” for whatever reasons, has become a major festering point in the India-Nepal bilateral relations in view of the ongoing border disputes. These issues have been repeatedly raised by Nepal’s Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli and Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali, say analysts.

Nepalese members of the EPG, contacted by the South Asian Monitor, refused to comment on the status of the submission of the joint panel’s recommendations report. Panel member from Nepal, Ranjan Bhattari said he was not authorized to speak on the issues related to the EPG any longer after the panel completed its report. Bhattari has taken over as foreign affairs advisor to Nepalese Prime Minister. 

International affairs, strategic and security analyst Geja Sharma Wagle says that in Nepal there are reservations over the EPG’s purported recommendations, particularly among the Madeshi community. “The Madeshi party-Janata Samajwadi Party-is opposed to a smart border and wants the “open border” concept to continue due to the people-to-people relations between the two countries,” Wagle told SAM.

The Oli government had not taken the opposition parties, including the Madeshi parties-based in the Terai region of the Himalayan nation-into confidence about the EPG, Wagle said.“The government is unlikely to take the opposition into confidence,” he affirmed.

Nepal’s tilt towards China

The economic blockade in September 2015, believed to have been engineered by Delhi, marked a turning point in bilateral ties, and Nepal’s tilt towards China, saidProf. Mahendra Lama of Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Both anti-Indianism and Nepal’s approaching China are not new, he said and adds that it had happened several times in the past, as during the economic blockade by India in 1989.

“Any blockade-like action affects an entire generation in Nepal like the one earlier in 1989 imposed by the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government. The 2015 India-imposed blockade coincided with the immediate aftermath of the devastating earthquake and also the widely celebrated Vijaya Dashami festival. An entire generation of Nepalese people was a victim of the 2015 blockade, as an earlier generation of Nepalese youths who were victims of the 1989 blockade. At one go, some goodwill we had gained between 1989 and 2015 was wiped out.  It was the biggest diplomatic failure on the part of India,” Lama said.

There can be no comparison between India-Nepal relations and Nepal’s ties with China, Lama insisted.

“India created a space for China and we are literally pushing Nepal towards China. China looks for space created by others. In diplomacy, India has to be very careful,” he adviced. 

“In daily life, Nepal is India-centric. But for us in India, Nepal does not figure much,” Lama points out. “China’s presence in Nepal began in the 1950s.Its alignments with Nepal have been through Tibet, whereas with India, Nepal’s ties are minute-to-minute, day-to-day, and century-to-century.” 

There is a lot of media propaganda in India about Nepal’s tilt towards China and China’s burgeoning influence in Nepal. 

“By buying this propaganda, we in India are only cutting down our own ties with Nepal, which are historical, trade related, cultural, natural and emotional. India is not only showing diplomatic weaknesses, but it is eroding its own institutional memories,” he said. 

“We had goodwill and centuries-old people to people relations with Nepal before the 2015 blockade. Yet no one in India was held accountable for breaking that” Lama lamented. 

India’s peculiar silence for six months, between November 2019 and June 2020, as the Kalapani, Lipulekh Pass and Limpiyadhura border row between the two countries escalated, was a big mistake, Lama argues. “It was a major diplomatic lapse on the part of India,” he underlined.