Since 2015, the year Nepal promulgated a new constitution through a historic Constituent Assembly, which New Delhi found problematic in a number of ways, India-Nepal relations have been turbulent. The low point came via an unofficial blockade at the India-Nepal border, which deprived Nepalis of crucial supplies; most Nepalis saw it as unforgivable interference in their countries’ political affairs. Since then, bilateral ties have been suffering from mutual distrust and suspicion, from which the relationship has yet to fully recover.
As a result, when a new leader comes to power in Kathmandu, the main foreign policy priority is finding a way to mend ties with New Delhi. The incumbent coalition government formed under Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba is not an exception.
Since taking office, Deuba and his administration have actively sought New Delhi’s support. Now, however, Deuba and his team are making desperate attempts to reach out to New Delhi. Ahead of his party’s 14th General Convention, which is a month away, Deuba is seeking New Delhi’s favor for his candidacy as Nepali Congress (NC) president. Deuba, 75, is fighting for another term as the president of his party – and thus as prime minister.
In late August, the ruling NC invited the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Foreign Affairs Department chief Vijay Chauthaiwale for the visit. During his stay in Nepal, Chauthaiwale met Deuba and other top political leaders of major parties.
Since 2020, Chauthaiwale – as a representative of India’s ruling party, the BJP – has been on a mission of engaging with Nepal’s political parties through party-to-party exchanges and interactions. He became the first high-level guest from India after Deuba became prime minister in July, following a court order.
The BJP has time and again hinted that they would support Nepali leaders who would align with their pro-Hindu agenda in Nepal. In meetings, BJP leaders are reportedly asking Nepali leaders to take measures to protect Hindu culture. Earlier, the BJP offered support to then-Prime Minister and Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) Chairman K.P. Sharma Oli after he took measures to woo Hindu constituency.
Reciprocating Chauthaiwale’s Kathmandu visit, a team of Nepali Congress leaders visited India in early October and held talks with BJP officials, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a polarizing Hindu nationalist. There were broadly two agenda items for the visit: first, enhancing NC’s party-to-party relations with the BJP and learning from the BJP’s experiences in organization building.
The second was conveying Deuba’s message to India. The team raised Nepal’s key agenda items in their meeting with India’s foreign minister. These meetings provided an opportunity to both sides to discuss top concerns and chalk out their respective strategies.
After laying the groundwork through party-to-party exchanges, Nepal’s Foreign Minister Narayan Khadka and Jaishankar met on the sidelines of 76th General Assembly of the United Nations. The two ministers discussed the wide range of bilateral issues are the top of the priority list. After the meeting with Khadka, Jaishankar tweeted that they had “agreed that we should work together closely to take our special relation forward.”
Finally, Deuba met his Indian counterpart, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on the sidelines of the COP26 meeting in Glasgow. In the meeting, according to Deuba, he extended an invitation to Modi to visit Nepal at the earliest opportunity. Modi also extended an invitation to Deuba to visit India. There is a tradition of Nepali prime minsters making their first overseas trip to India after assuming office, but Deuba’s India visit is yet to be finalized. In the past three months, Deuba has been busy in managing an unruly coalition government and preparing for the NC’s General Convention activities. In the near future, either Deuba will pay a visit to New Delhi or Modi will visit Nepal.
The regular meetings and exchanges will help to clear misunderstandings between India and Nepal. This will also help to make an environment of trust, a prerequisite to address the long-standing pending issues between two countries.
Several key bilateral issues need to be resolved through dialogue in order to push the relationship to the next level. For instance, a report prepared by Nepal-Indian Eminent Persons’ Group (EPG) with recommendations on advancing bilateral ties is gathering dust. The committee was formed in 2016 and completed its tasks in 2018. Objecting some of the provisions of the EPG, India is refusing to receive it. Although the expert report is not binding, it would be wise for the Indian government to receive the report, which can then be publicized for public discussion.
Another prominent issue is the boundary dispute between two countries, which has existed for the past six decades but further escalated in 2019-2020. Though there have been some informal discussions between two sides about the boundary, the two countries are yet to sit for formal talks. The available mechanism to discuss the boundary issue is a foreign secretary-level meeting, which has not met even a single time.
Despite some pressing bilateral issues, recent trends in bilateral relation are encouraging. Despite the fluctuations of the relationship at the political level, overall bilateral relations are satisfactorily moving ahead, irrespective of whichever party forms government. In recent years, bilateral meetings have been taking place on a regular basis and many pending projects are being completed or clearing hurdles.
Similarly, the recent attempt to enhance party-to-party relations is a smart approach. Despite being close neighbors, there are not many interactions between the political parties of the two countries. Party-to-party relations help politicians to understand each other and such talks provide a lower-stakes forum to discuss bilateral issues, which ultimately contributes to government-to-government relations. Additionally, there could be exchanges between the parliamentarian of two countries, and there should be greater exchanges between the youth of India and Nepal.
The ongoing meetings and interactions between India and Nepal must be continued in the days to come. Absence of talks at top levels creates suspicion and misunderstanding between two countries. The upcoming high-level visits between two countries are expected to contribute to cement the bilateral ties.
At the same time, both sides should be serious about resolving the pressing bilateral issues, because if such issues remain pending they could create friction at any time. Open and candid discussions between two sides are the only way to move ahead, and that is not happening.