A big test of PM Deuba and Nepal-India ties as he goes on official visit to India

When PM Deuba returns home he should have something solid to show in matters of resolving outstanding issues so that he can proudly announce what he gained for Nepal.

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba meets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (File photo/RSS)

Mahabir Paudyal

  • Read Time 7 min.

Indian commentators have a good reason to presume that the incumbent government led by Sher Bahadur Deuba is more favorable to and ‘comfortable’ for India. Since it came to power in July 2021, his government and its ministers have not said or done anything that could potentially rile up India. There have been no allusions to Singha Mewa Jayate and no claims like Lord Rama was born in Thori of Nepal.  

Unlike his predecessor KP Oli, who was vocal about asserting the sovereignty of Nepal in the Kalapani region, Deuba has been careful enough not to speak about it. Even when a Nepali citizen died by falling into the Mahakali River, when armed Indian forces cut off the tuin crossing, the government tried not to speak about it until the public pressure mounted.

The government has, to a considerable extent, kept China—India’s biggest trade partner and yet its adversary—at bay. By sending the message to Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councilor Wang Yi during his Nepal visit early this week that Nepal is no longer interested in pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) under the loan scheme, the government has sent a strong message far and wide. India has opposed China’s BRI and has not wanted it to materialize in Nepal. Nepal turning down BRI thus could have been given a reason to cheer in New Delhi. 

Besides, Deuba, his spouse and his party look invested in cultivating the best relations with the Indian establishment. A month after Deuba took office, Arzu Rana tied the rakhi on the hand of Dr Vijaya Chauthaiwale, the Foreign Affairs Department Chief of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), when he was in Kathmandu in August 2021.  She went on a Delhi trip in early January to facilitate the visit of Deuba to attend the Vibrant Gujarat Global Summit, which was later canceled due to Covid-19. Earlier to that in October, Deuba had sent a delegation to India purportedly to foster party-to-party ties between Nepali Congress and BJP.

All positives that India would like to see in its backward. But it will not be on these grounds that Deuba’s New Delhi trip (starting Friday) will be watched and judged in Nepal. He has a lot on his plate and what he does and says in India is going to be closely watched in Kathmandu.

Big issues on the table 

Expectedly, Deuba will be given the red carpet in New Delhi. He may be able to build on political relations but Kathmandu wants him to talk about what actually matters in Nepal-India relations.

Deuba’s tasks are cut out. First of all, he has to initiate dialogues to free the Kalapani region from Indian occupation. Deuba may try to skip the issue, or so may the Indian side, but this is a perennial concern here in Nepal.

There is a unanimous agreement among the political parties that the Kalapani issue must be resolved. “He must talk to his Indian counterpart about it. The new administrative map was issued in June 2020 with the full support of the Nepali Congress. The government cannot skip this issue. Territorial integrity is every party’s agenda,” says Chauyen Lai Shrestha, who in the past served as the Chief of the Department of International Relations of Nepali Congress. “How can we forget this real issue?” 

The second agenda is about the Eminent Persons Group’s report. As things stand, the EPG report has not been accepted by the Indian side. Without acceptance from the Indian side, the EPG report, which the EPG members from both India and Nepal say has recommendations to sort out nearly all the thorny issues between the two countries, risks becoming irrelevant. 

If one goes by the joint statements issued during the visits of K P Oli to India in April 2018 and similar statements during Narendra Modi’s visit to Nepal in May that year, one just wonders if there is anything left to be addressed at all.

So why has India not accepted this report prepared after years of research by the study team comprising intellectuals from both India and Nepal? “It is because the Nepali side has not done enough to make India accept it,” says Shrestha.

Nilambar Acharya, who served as the ambassador of Nepal to India, has a similar view. “The EPG report must be accepted by India.  The world has changed. India has changed and Nepal has changed. We must rise above the mindset of colonial times,” says Acharya. According to him, the Indian officials never rejected Nepal’s request to accept the report. “They never said they would not accept the report. But in reality, they would not accept it.” 

Then comes the case of death of Jaya Singh Dhami. Though Nepal sent a diplomatic note to India over this matter, there has been no follow-up or response. Ironically, the government itself announced a compensation of one million rupees for the family of Dhami. “That was a mockery of the loss of life of a Nepali citizen,” says Chauyen Lai Shrestha.  “A Nepali citizen lost his life because of the carelessness of the armed forces of India. The PM must raise this issue with India.” 

The third pressing issue is related to obtaining air routes for the operation of Bhairahawa International Airport to facilitate the movement of international flights to and from the birthplace of the Buddha. Nepal had made a request to India to this effect in 2014 during PM Modi’s visit to Nepal.  Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba is said to have repeated this request with his Indian counterpart during their meeting in Scotland in November 2021. We don’t know if Deuba will take up this issue during the India trip.   

Construction of dams, embankments, and other structures by the Indian side in the border areas and river systems often surface as irritants in Nepal-India ties. As a matter of fact,  unilateral construction of such structures by the Indian side has resulted in the territories of Nepal being inundated. This has become a sore point in Kathmandu-New Delhi ties. 

Nepal has been at the receiving end of the demonetization policy the government of India imposed in November 2016. As much as 70 million demonetized Indian currency is said to be rotting away in Nepal’s central bank. The government of Nepal has requested the government of India to take back the notes but to no avail. Then there is a perennial problem of trade deficit–the largest share of it being with India

These are the issues that really matter for Nepalis and Nepal-India relations. These are also the real issues that must be raised and addressed.

Rhetoric vs reality

It is customary during the official visits of the Indian Prime Minister to Nepal and the Nepali Prime Minister to India to sign agreements, which, if implemented, can address some of the issues mentioned above. During this visit too, some new deals might be signed. But if one goes by the joint statements issued during the visits of K P Oli to India in April 2018 and similar statements made during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Nepal in May that year, one just wonders if there is anything left to be addressed at all.

The then PM KP Oli meets Indian PM Narendra Modi. (File photo/PTI)

These agreements cover nearly all the concerns–from trade deficit to connectivity to partnerships for infrastructure development to many others.  

Hosts of agreements had been reached during the visit of Oli to India in April 2018.  Oli and Modi agreed to speed up the implementation of bilateral projects. India-Nepal partnership in agriculture, rail linkage from Raxaul in India to Kathmandu, new connectivity between India and Nepal through inland waterways, among others, were announced. There was a promise of Jayanagar-Bijalpura-Bardibas, Jogbani-Biratnagar, New Jalpaiguri-Kakarbhitta, and Nautanwa-Bhairahawa railways.

During most high-level visits and afterward, the same story of promises, assurances, commitments followed by a lack of action is repeated. This story has to change. 

When Modi came to Nepal in May 2018 many of these promises were reiterated.  Modi and Oli, it was said, agreed to take “effective measures for the implementation of all the agreements and understandings reached in the past.” They also stressed the effective implementation of the bilateral initiatives in agriculture, railway linkages, and inland waterways development. The trade deficit was talked about, additional air entry routes were promised, along with the steps to enhance the economic and physical connectivity by air, land, and water. Besides, inundation and flood management were key areas in which measures for sustainable solutions were promised. Nepal-India Ramayana Circuit connecting Janakpur, the birthplace of Sita, with Ayodhya and other sites was launched. A direct bus service between Janakpur and Ayodhya was inaugurated by the two PMs. All outstanding issues between the two countries would be addressed by September 2018, we were told.

Yet, the truth of the matter is that many of these promises remain either unrealized or there is very little progress on the ground. Big projects either take ages to take off or they are simply forgotten.

Why does this happen?

Sunil KC, Vice President of Nepal India Chamber of Commerce and Industry (NICCI), outlines some definite reasons. First, he says, the Nepali side often remains unprepared to deal with the Indian side. Our conversation often revolves around roti-beti ties and the exchange of pleasantries. “We don’t do real business-like deals with India. We don’t say, for example, this is the project we can work on together, through this financial modality and within this time frame,” he says. The second reason, KC explains, is that we don’t go to India with a definite agenda. “What is the major agenda of the PM’s visit regarding trade, connectivity and infrastructure?” The visit was announced on short notice. Where is the time for preparation and homework?” This is the reason, KC argues, “we end up receiving whatever India has to offer.”

The third reason, according to KC, is that there is no follow-up on existing projects from both sides. “Nepal-India Inter-Governmental Committee (IGC) meeting has not resumed since it last met in 2018. Such meetings are supposed to take place every six months to review the projects. The Indian side also does not seem to care much about it.”

The fourth reason, says KC, is that we don’t set the target. “We go unplanned. And there is no national political consensus regarding the projects, trade and commerce engagements, and cooperation with India.”

Time for a new story 

“Nepal and India are so close to each other in so many ways that we can resolve even the intractable problems including those related to the boundaries. We just need to raise the issues and work on them,” says Nilambar Acharya.  

I cannot agree more.  

But often, during most such official visits and afterward, the same story is repeated–the promises, assurances, commitments followed by a lack of action or a little action.  

That story has to change. 

Nepal-India relation is unique and there is no exaggeration about it. People-to-people ties are much stronger than government-to-government relations. It is this bond that prevents the relations from breaking apart even if the mistakes happen at the political level. But this people-to-people relationship alone does not contribute to political relations if genuine concerns of Nepal are not raised on time and addressed on time.

This, sadly, does not become the priority for many Nepali political actors. The visit of Deuba, for example, is seen as his attempt to seek India’s support for his hold in power and for the upcoming elections, as one Indian intellectual recently suggested on Twitter

Nepali Congress claims they are different from other political parties in that they raise the outstanding issues with India with the right person and at the right place. There can be no better time to walk the talk than now, and, this time in New Delhi.

When PM Deuba returns home he should have something solid to show in matters of resolving outstanding issues with India so that he can proudly announce what he gained for Nepal.