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Oli must set agenda for the future of Indo-Nepal relations

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  • February 19, 2016

    After facing the most tumultuous period in Nepal-India relations due to the Madhesh andolan that lasted for 135 days, Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli is set to make his maiden visit to India today. It is clear that the Oli government is desirous to improve the not-so-long-ago strained ties with India, which too, for its part, is keen on ending the dip in relations with Nepal.

    Oli’s is an important visit mainly because of two factors. First, the visit will allow both sides to take a deeper look at the political relations existing between India and the Nepalese leadership. This will be Oli’s first foreign visit since he took office and the first visit to India by a Nepali premier since the 2011 visit of Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai. Second, it will help to clear the way for numerous crucial development-related projects in Nepal to be carried out under Indian aid and grants. Towards this end, the reconstruction efforts, water sharing and hydro, connectivity, tourism and security engagements will be vital.

    However, the background in which the visit is coming up is a sensitive one. The Nepal government, until February 5, the day when the Birgunj-Raxaul border opened, blamed India for imposing an unofficial blockade in moral support of the Madhesi andolan, which erupted in protest against the Constitution promulgated on September 20. Madhesis and Tharus were protesting even in the run up to the promulgation of the constitution. They are still claiming that the constitution has diluted their rights and representation, compromised on inclusion, carved out territories that deprive self-rule and have discriminatory citizenship provisions. 40 people lost their lives during this movement.

    India, since the very beginning of the protests, has been urging for a political solution to the crisis. New Delhi will once again reiterate this to Oli. Although the ‘course correction’ from the Indian side was a result of its own internal review of the ‘mismanagement’ of Nepal affairs, India will still urge the Nepal government to reach out to the agitators. After all, it was only after India saw some reconciliation emerging from the four-point proposal, which was endorsed by the Nepal cabinet, that the Madhesi leaders were urged to end the strike. The four points propose to amend the Constitution to ensure constituencies were demarcated on the basis of population and provide for proportional inclusion in state organs. It committed to clarifying provisions related to citizenship and creating a political mechanism that would revise federal boundaries in three months. These remain pertinent issues although some agreement has been reached between the government and the United Democratic Madhesi Front.

    The political scenario has left a deep scar on the bilateral relations. Nepal and the Nepalese people have suffered tremendously due to the ‘blockade’, which came soon after the devastating April earthquake. The overall damage caused by the earthquake is estimated to be around USD 10 billion, nearly half of the country’s GDP, and the estimated cost to rebuild homes, damaged infrastructure and historical monuments is about USD 5 billion. India has committed a USD 1 billion line of credit towards Nepal’s reconstruction effort. Oli’s visit must immediately clear the way for the funds to reach Nepal before the onset of the monsoon in order to help the quake victims, who have already faced a harsh winter.

    After three decades of slow growth, the double impact of the earthquake and ‘blockade’ may lead to negative growth this fiscal year. According to Nepal Rastra Bank’s assessment, economic growth could contract to -0.9 per cent this fiscal year, the first time in 33 years. As it is, three per cent of the population is facing the danger of being pushed below the poverty line after the two massive earthquakes in April and May last year. Oli’s visit must be directed towards helping to resolve the endless woes of the Nepali populace. The Oli government has functioned in the backdrop of flourishing black marketing during the ‘blockade’, hording by suppliers and adulteration. The initial look out towards the northern neighbour for desperate help yielded little success. The effort by the Oli government to seek help from China caused a double jeopardy. Whereas it brought insignificant help to the country, the overture put off the Indian establishment. China will continue to urge the Nepali leadership to maintain good relations with India as it still regards the country as being in the Indian sphere of influence.

    The Oli visit must also help to activate the bilateral working mechanisms, especially in security and defence. The political stand-off between India and Nepal has severely affected bilateral ties and progress on working mechanisms between the two neighbours. The direct consequences of which has been continuous delay in bilateral meetings, which were scheduled to be held last year. The bilateral meeting on security, which was to take place at the end of September in Allahabad did not take place. The Bilateral Consultative Mechanism on Security Issues was an important meeting to discuss the agenda revolving around disaster management, humanitarian assistance, training, purchase of lethal and non-lethal equipment, production, etc. Most importantly, the Development Partnership Administration III (DPA III), which deals with the implementation of grant assistance projects to Nepal, was to be finalized as well. In addition, the meeting of Police Academy Technical Committee was to take place in Nepal and the Home Secretary-level talks was to take place in India to discuss the security issues between the two countries, which share an 1800 km long open border. The last Home Secretary talks took place in January 2013. Although the talks were envisaged to take place each year alternately in the two countries, they could not be held in 2014 and 2015. There exists a three-tier working mechanism between India and Nepal at the ministerial, secretary and joint secretary levels. This must be revived soon.

    It is surely not the size of the delegation that is going to bring much success to the visit. After all, a 46-member delegation can only cause much clatter and clamour but produce nothing significant – a fact consistently ignored by all past and present prime ministers of Nepal. Oli’s visit must set the derailed Indo-Nepal relations back on track and set the agenda for future direction. India, for its part, must show magnanimity and revive Indo-Nepal relations to the height that was witnessed during Prime Minister Modi’s maiden visit to Kathmandu soon after assuming office. Both countries must chart a fresh path ahead on the basis of mutual shared benefits, taking their long term interests into account and in the spirit of mutual accommodation.

    The author is Visiting Fellow at IDSA.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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