This visit had twin purposes: one was to reassure Nepal that India is an all-weather friend and another that the development of Nepal is best achieved with India’s help.
During his Nepal visit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that India stands shoulder to shoulder with the people of Nepal. PM Modi and Nepal PM K.P. Oli laid the foundation stone for a 900 MW Arun III hydroelectric power plant project in Kathmandu. The Nepal PM requested the Indian PM to facilitate the exchange of demonetised currency notes held in the Nepali banking system and by the general public at the earliest. Modi’s third visit to Nepal can be seen primarily as a balancing act to China. This was also the first high-level visit since the formation of the new government in Nepal. Modi’s visit took place around a month after Oli visited India. There is fresh consensus between the two countries to build ties on the concept of “equality, mutual trust and respect”. India-Nepal relations have nosedived since 2016. Oli has been accusing India of interfering in Nepal’s internal matters. During the elections Oli and his party tried to light the fire of national fervour against India. After winning the election and becoming Prime Minister, he took the calculated move of travelling to India first.
The importance and relevance of PM Modi’s visit has to be analysed in the context of larger world politics, specifically Asian. After the Doklam standoff, the Indian PM has become more cautious about Nepal. Politics in Nepal in the last two years escalated into an anti-India wave and invited China into very close proximity. The open border system between India and Nepal—five major states share their boundaries with Nepal—needs vigilance on India’s part about Chinese presence.
Earlier, Chinese connections to Nepal were based on Tibet until the 1980s. Since 1986 it started increasing its volume of trade. Currently, China’s foreign direct investment in Nepal is US$79.26 million, whereas India’s is that of $36.63 million. China has recently developed a police academy for Nepal with all the modern facilities. Chinese internet providers are breaking Indian monopoly in Nepal. Every year China invites thousands of Nepalese students to pursue different courses. Chinese cities have become major tourist destinations for Nepal. Chinese language centres are mushrooming.
Earlier, China’s Nepal policy was neutral and supported all hues of political system. During the monarchy, it castigated the Maoist forces. During the reign of King Gyanendra, China used to call the Maoists “miscreants”, “anti-state rebels” and “hijackers” of Mao’s name. China also tried to bring the monarchy and the political parties together so that the Maoists could be defeated. But the moment the Maoists came to power, Beijing became pro-Maoists.
China-Nepal bonhomie started with the Tibet factor. More than 30,000 Tibetans were living in Nepal, which China perceived as a challenge. Gradually, with the support of China, the majority of Tibetans either migrated to India or went to other countries. Today they can hardly be found in Nepal.
China is trying to create a rail link with Nepal. During the economic blockade, Oli approached China for critical fuel supplies and Beijing promptly dispatched tankers carrying 1.3 million litres of petrol. Oli visited China soon after and sealed a number of major pacts, including a transit agreement allowing Nepal access to Chinese sea ports, and Chinese loans to build an international airport in the tourist town of Pokhara. Oli’s pet agenda is to have the Qinghai-Tibet railway extended all the way to Kathmandu. China has initiated to extend it to Shigaste and Kyirong in Tibet, close to the Nepal border. Oli had signed an agreement during his first stint as PM to hand over the Budhi-Gandaki hydroelectric project to the Chinese company Gezhouba Group Corporation. Chinese strategy in Nepal is still Tibet-centric and hinges on deterring India from trying to dissect Tibet from China. Mao had said those Tibetan plateaus are China’s teeth, protecting the tongue from outside enemies. That is why Nepal became a suitable ally to fulfil China’s objectives.
Currently, India’s attempt should be to convince the Nepalese people that it wants a cohesive, peaceful and integrated Nepal. The cultural ties between the two countries are civilisational and cannot be dismantled by any third power or political regime. PM Modi has rightly routed his third journey to Nepal with cultural and historical appeals. During his two-day visit, he offered prayers at the Janaki temple in Janakpur. He also visited the Muktinath temple and the Indian embassy’s pension camp in Pokhara. More than 90% of people in Nepal are Hindus. More than 55% live in Terai where Janakpur is among the most important places.
India is launching many projects for better connectivity with Nepal. India will build a strategic railway link between Raxaul in Bihar and Kathmandu to facilitate people to people contact and speed up the movement of goods. The two Prime Ministers agreed to construct a new electrified rail line, which will be financed by India, connecting India to Nepal. The stretch of railway line from Jayanagar to Janakpur/Kurtha and from Jogbani to Biratnagar custom yard will be completed by the end of 2018. Three other railway projects are in the pipeline.
Both countries are exploring the possibility of tapping the potential of inland waterways. This may be a game changer in terms of connectivity. Nepal is a land-locked country surrounded by India from three sides. Most Himalayan rivers flow from Tibet into Nepal before reaching India. The route is difficult and serpentine. If there is feasibility to develop inland river connectivity, cargo shipments can move with ease. India is also planning to start the Arun-3 hydro-electric project in Sankhuwasabha district of eastern Nepal. This project is likely to be completed by 2022. This may massively help Nepal enhance its hydro power potential.
Moreover, this visit was a reassurance to the people of Nepal that signed pacts are going to be completed on time. The Indian PM has not raised Nepal’s incoherencies and contradictions that are still major political factors of its 2015 Constitution. But Modi’s journey from Janakpur was a reminder to the Oli government to accommodate the genuine demands of the Terai people.
Nevertheless, world politics is moving fast. The Korean peninsula is an example where China’s hegemony has been put on hold. The US is reasserting itself in Asia. Looking at an India-US strategic partnership, China is more conscious of its defence trajectory, which begins with Tibet. The Khampa rebellion in Tibet in the 1960s is still a stark reminder for China. India cannot succeed merely by parroting cultural and historical anecdotes, it has to talk economy. This visit had twin purposes. One to reassure Nepal that India is an all weather friend who will stand up for it up in moments of crisis and another is that the development of Nepal is best achieved with help from India.
Prof Satish Kumar is Head of Department of Political Science at Central University of Haryana