President Pranab Mukherjee’s three day visit to Nepal in November 2016 was historic. He became the first Indian President in the last 18 years to visit Nepal. Nepalese President Bidhya Devi Bhandari received and saw President Mukherjee off at the Tribhuvan international airport and the Nepal government announced a holiday on 02 November for President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit. President Mukherjee held a wide range of discussions across the Nepal’s political class, sending a clear and strong message to the people of Nepal that “India will support Nepal in its pursuit of peace, stability and development.” President Mukherjee’s message reaffirming India’s desire to strength the relationship with Nepal has assumed huge significance in light of the fact that relations between the two countries have been tense in the recent past.
Soon after coming into power in May 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi showed an ardent desire to reinvigorate the engagement with Kathmandu under his government’s “first neighbourhood policy. However, Modi’s initiative of inviting Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli of Nepal for the swearing-in ceremony of his government as a member of the South Asia Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and his visits to Nepal in August and November 2014 did not produce the expected results. This became evident when despite India’s proactive efforts to help Nepal in the aftermath of the earthquake in April 2015, Nepalese recoiled at the presence of Indian media on their soil, charging the Indian government with indulging in a cheap public relations exercise. In September 2015, Nepal accused India of supporting the Madhesi people, who began protesting against the new constitution adopted by the Constituent Assembly (CA) II and blocked all the entry points with India, leading to the huge shortage of essential items including medicines, petroleum products and others. Nepal’s media claimed that India had an invisible hand in the blockade. Oli himself accused India of carrying out an “unofficial blockade” in Nepal and raised the issue with UN Secretary General Ban Kimoon.
In fact, Nepalese Prime Minister Oli became so much critical of India that he started fostering engagement with China during and the post-political crisis. This shift in Nepal’s policy became clear when just after his visit to India on February 2016, Oli went to China in March and agreed, among several other things, to work with the Chinese government to carry out major projects under the framework of the One Belt and Road Initiative. The two sides also decided to take efforts towards constructing cross border railways and railways network in Nepal. Undoubtedly, given India’s strong views on the One Belt ad One Road and its security concerns emanating from road and rail links between Nepal and China raised the Indian government’s eyebrows.
While things did appear improving in the relationship between New Delhi and Kathmandu, Nepal once again faced the problem of political instability, when the Oli government lost a majority in the 601 member- parliament. While the ouster of Oli sent some relief to the Indian government, given his tilt towards China, some experts and diplomats expressed apprehensions about the future of the relationship between the two countries under the new Nepalese government-led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’. There were indeed some compelling reasons, one being the fact that on being elected as the Prime Minister for the first time in 2008, he first visited to China, breaking the precedent of a new Nepalese Prime Minister making India his first trip, which greatly displeased India. His strongly clamour for the review of all the bilateral treaties with India, including the 1950 India-Nepal friendship treaty and his government’s decision to sack Nepal Army Chief Gen Rukmangad Katwal in 2009, who supposedly enjoyed close ties with India, further increased the gulf between the two countries.
However, unlike in the past, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s approach towards has been highly encouraging for India this time. He has publically acknowledged that Nepal’s relations with India are unique and their bilateral ties cannot be compared with the relationship between Nepal and any other countries including China. Prime Minister Prachanda has even further conceded that it was all because of his political inexperience that prevented him from developing close engagement with India during his earlier tenure as the Prime Minister. His changed views about New Delhi became very much visible when he visited India in September, after becoming the Prime Minister. In turn, his visit underscored the fact that under his government Nepal would take efforts to bring back the relationship on track. These developments indeed provided an opportunity for Prime Minister Modi to silence its opponents who have argued that his government policy has completely failed to foster the sense of trust and engagement in the relationship with Nepal.
It is in this positive background that President Mukherjee’s visit to Nepal took place, aiming to use the conducive atmosphere to enhance the bilateral ties. During his visit, Mukherjee conveyed to the Nepali leadership that India was ready to share its experiences in building an inclusive constitution, the two countries set up setup cooperation mechanisms to complete ongoing projects speedily. He also made several announcements including India’s decision to allow Nepali students to pursue graduate and post-graduate courses in the Indian Institutes of Technology on a regular basis from 2017 onwards. This in turn further help boost people-people engagement between the two countries.
Another reason for the Modi government to engage Kathmandu at the highest political level is China’s increasing investment in the infrastructure, energy and other sectors of Nepal. There is a consensus among Indian strategists and experts that as Pakistan already enjoys goodwill with some sections of the Nepalese, China’s involvement in the Himalayan country could facilitate the emergence of a China-Nepal nexus against India. The Modi government has also correctly realized the need to sustain the dialogue process with Nepal to ensure that the interests of the Madhesi region, who have close cultural and family ties with the people of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, should be reflected in its new Constitution.
As the visit of President Mukherjee has infused a new movement into the relationship between the two countries, it should be hoped that his “mission of friendship” would further direct the two countries to scale up the relationship in the future.