Indian External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna’s ongoing visit to Nepal comes as the country is experiencing uncertain political and economic times.
The deadline for the drafting of a Nepalese constitution is drawing nearer, yet the new government, which came to power under the leadership of Jhalanath Khanal in February, appears unable to push the process forward.
The differences among political parties over various issues — integration of the Maoist combatants, restructuring of the state and the judiciary and the nature of the government— remain unresolved. In addition, Khanal has had many problems in putting together a working cabinet, with the Home Ministry portfolio remaining a bone of contention between the CPN-UML and UCPN-Maoist.
The ongoing political crisis has also had an adverse impact on Nepal’s economy, with some parts of the country suffering daily 18 hour-power cuts. To top it all, Krishna’s visit is taking place at a time when ‘anti-Indianism’ is at its peak.
Such anti-India sentiment isn’t due to a lack of effort to improve things on the Indian side. Numerous high-level visits have taken place in the past year or so, with Krishna himself having visited Nepal last January to meet a range of political leaders. During his visit, Krishna discussed the future of the peace process in Nepal as well as various issues of bilateral concern such as civil aviation, a trade treaty and a joint committee on water resources. Krishna also placed particular emphasis on the need for regular high-level bilateral interactions to strengthen India-Nepal ties.
In addition to Krishna’s wide-ranging visit, the prime ministers of both countries also met on the sidelines of the 16th SAARC Summit in Thimpu in April 2010, while in January this year, Nepal’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sujata Koirala visited India. This trip was followed by Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao’s reciprocal visit to Nepal the same month.
In addition to these official visits, there has also been sustained contact at the non-official level between the two countries. Leaders of Madhesi and other political parties visited India in March, while the first-ever visit of a young parliamentarians’ delegation from Nepal took place last November. In addition, at the Track II level, the public diplomacy division of India’s External Affairs Ministry took the initiative to organise four rounds of dialogue with civil society representatives from Nepal.
Against this backdrop, India remains Nepal’s biggest trade partner and the largest source of foreign direct investment and tourist arrivals. In addition, India continues to support developmental activities in Nepal at the grassroots level—so far, over 400 projects have either been completed or are under various stages of implementation in Nepal.
Yet despite a well-grounded bilateral relationship and excellent people-to-people ties, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that vested interest groups in Nepal are seeking to encourage anti-India sentiment. For example, some media reports in Nepal have misinterpreted and even misrepresented key facts, while some political groups have repeatedly invented some kind of Indian ‘intervention’ in Nepal’s domestic politics.
With Nepal going through a political crisis in the context of the approaching May 28 deadline for drafting a constitution, it can only be hoped that Krishna’s visit won’t be misinterpreted as interference in Nepalese affairs. To stave off this possibility, Krishna should take this opportunity to publicly reassure the people of Nepal that India has always acted in their interests, and that the country has no intention of interfering in domestic Nepalese politics. He should also convey to them that India will do everything possible to ensure a better future for the Nepalese people through greater political, economic and cultural engagement.
Still, fulfilling the high expectations of the people of Nepal on the one hand, and combating anti-India sentiment stoked by certain groups in Nepal on the other, won’t be easy. Indian foreign policymakers have their work cut out.