Nepal’s Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli is currently on a six-day trip to India. His trip has the overarching purpose of restoring ties between Nepal and India, two neighbors and historic partners that have drifted apart over the past year due to a political crisis stemming from Nepal’s new constitution, which was promulgated last year. Before leaving Kathmandu for India, Oli acknowledged that “in the last few months there have been many misunderstandings between our two countries.” Accordingly, he said, “We now want to get our relationship back on track.”
Notably, Oli’s visit to India keeps with the long-standing tradition of Nepali leaders generally visiting India before any other state after coming to power. (One notable recent exception was Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Nepal’s 33rd prime minister and chairman of the country’s major Maoist party, who chose to visit Beijing before New Delhi.) Reports in December suggested that Oli would eschew this practice and choose to visit China first. Oli took care to rebuke accusations that he had played the “China card” against India when speaking to reporters before his trip. His is slated to visit China later this spring.
In his conversations with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Oli will be looking to set the India-Nepal relationship back on track after a turbulent seven months of bilateral diplomacy over the country’s constitutional crisis. Nepal has historically been closely aligned with India. A 1950 treaty between the two countries governs their bilateral relationship and resulted in close strategic cooperation on defense and foreign policy over the decades. But since the formation of Nepal’s new constituent assembly in 2008, calls have intensified within the country to scrap the bilateral treaty.
Nepal-India tensions spiked last year with the promulgation of a constitution that was perceived as non-inclusive of ethnic Madhesi and Tharu groups. Protests broke out among the groups, which live primarily in Nepal’s southern plains and have close cultural and linguistic ties across the border with India.
The Indian government largely sympathized with the protesters’ concerns that the country’s new constitution disenfranchised them through its provisions for proportional representation and its handling of the delimitation of federal constituencies. As a result of the instability in Nepal, Indian trucks carrying critical supplies to Nepal, including fuel, food, and medicine, among other goods, refused to cross the border, resulting a de facto economic blockade. The Nepali government alleged that the Indian government had encouraged the blockade to apply leverage on Kathmandu to pursue constitutional reform. Though tensions persist within Nepal, the Nepali government acquiesced to reform demands and implemented a critical constitutional amendment that paved the path back to diplomacy as usual with India.
According to the Indian Express, based on remarks made by Modi and Oli over the weekend, it was apparent that differences persisted in how the Indian and Nepali governments viewed the latter’s constitution. Modi described Nepal’s constitution as a “major achievement,” but cautioned that its ultimate success will hinge on “consensus and dialogue.” Oli, meanwhile, called the document “historic.” Modi additionally expressed hope that Oli would be inclusive as he governed Nepal: “I am confident on the basis of these principles and through political dialogue and by taking all sections together, you will be able to resolve all issues relating to the constitution satisfactorily and take Nepal forward towards the path of development and stability.” Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar said separately that Oli had delivered assurances that the Nepal would follow through on the constitutional reforms that New Delhi wanted to see.
While in India, Oli will sign two important memorandums of understanding: one regarding a $1 billion line of credit that India had extended to Nepal during Modi’s visit to Kathmandu last fall, and another regarding reconstruction aid that India had pledged following the devastating April 2015 earthquake in Nepal.
With the looming issue of Nepal’s constitution still present in the background during the Nepalese prime minister’s inaugural visit to India, there is little room for the two countries to forge new, path-breaking agreements. Oli’s visit, thus, represents an important moment for both countries to set the diplomatic ill will that emerged over the past several months behind them and chart a new path forward.