By Bikram Timilsina, Brisbane
29 August 2017
Nepal’s Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has returned home after a 5-day long state visit to India. The coalition partners in Kathmandu – Nepali Congress and Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center) – were quick to call it a “successful trip”. However, Deuba’s tour of India has triggered both commendation and condemnation in Nepal.
The ritual of India tour
Visiting India has never been an easy task for prime ministers of Nepal. Most Nepalese people believe that their trips to India often start as a matter of attraction and end in seduction. Although all former PMs concluded their New Delhi tours with an ostensible conviction that their visits were “highly successful” and that they were able to take bilateral relations to “a new height”, the history of Indo-Nepal relations lacks evidence to support their assertions.
During the ongoing tenure of Narendra Modi, Nepal has already had four PMs. All of them visited the southern neighbor without carrying out proper planning and preparation. It has become a ritual for Nepalese PMs to visit India as soon as they assume office. It is as though visiting India is Nepalese prime minister’s first constitutional responsibility. This is unfortunate.
There is no doubt that frequent high level visits can enrich the foundations of Nepal-India relations. However, such visits should occur from both sides and with proper agendas and preparations for sealing deals that proportionately benefit both the South Asian nations. Similarly, the magnitude of the deals should fit the level of the visiting leaders or the delegates.
If you closely look at the tendency of visits of Nepalese and Indian prime ministers, the trip from the Nepalese side has almost become a ritual (even to the extent of the very first international visit after assuming office is to India and nowhere else) while that from India to Nepal has been atypical. This trend has hurt the sentiment of self-respecting Nepalese people since this is against the basic norm of equal importance between two sovereign states – no matter how big or small.
Nepal is also responsible for this unequal treatment. Incompetence of leaders, political instability, and unstable governments are major reasons why India does not respect Nepal’s desire to be treated equally.
What was the visit for?
So the recent New Delhi visit by PM Deuba has appeared as nothing but another round in a ritualistic series of visits. Though he received a warm welcome and relatively better treatment in New Delhi, it should not be taken as a material gain for Nepal. This should rather be considered as PM Modi’s attempt at repairing India’s ties with Nepal which severely deteriorated in the wake of its blockade on the landlocked country. In this sense, the visit was more for India than for Nepal.
The deals signed during Mr Deuba’s trip were not suitable for the high office of a prime minister. It shows that the visit was basically not intended for any deals signed during the visit. Similarly, the pressing issues of Nepal-India relations such as border disputes, Treaty of 1950 and recent floods in Nepal caused by the embankments constructed by India in border regions were even not included in the agenda. But ask any Nepalese and they would confirm that those were the issues that should have been the main agendas of the prime ministerial visit, if at all. This shows that Deuba’s Delhi visit was not planned to settle these pressing issues. It was just a continuity of the “ritual” out of which India wanted to address the anti-Indian sentiment in Nepal. The anti-Indian feeling in Nepal heightened ever since India maliciously imposed a border blockade as it demanded amendment to the new constitution of the mountain republic.
Impolitic promise on constitutional amendment
This time PM Modi did not want to further intensify Nepalese people’s resentment towards India by formally forcing Nepal for constitutional amendment since this would be against the purpose of Deuba’s red carpet welcome in Delhi. This is the reason Modi did not speak a word on Nepal’s constitution amendment during their joint press meet or any other formal meetings. However, it was Deuba himself who promised that he would keep trying for a two-third majority required to amend the constitution, the demand that India still seems to be intact on. This irrelevant and inappropriate promise on an internal affair became a matter of massive condemnation back home for Deuba. Given Indian foreign secretary S Jaishankar’s revelation that India was still firm on its demand for Nepal’s constitutional amendment, it is easy to deduce that Deuba was under constant pressure from the Indian side to make a promise on the matter.
Whatever the motivation, Deuba made a monumental error of judgment by promising India something that was completely unnecessary and inappropriate. He should have known that Nepal was a sovereign nation and hence, he did not have to answer to any foreign government on his internal matters. It was an imprudent act of Deuba.
Though Doklam deadlock has now been settled after China and India reached an agreement yesterday to withdraw, it had been a grave issue for over two months not only vis-à-vis Sino-India relations but for the entire region including for Nepal. While India was pressing Nepal to support its presence in Doklam, China was seeking Nepal’s neutrality on the same. Many in Nepal doubted if PM Deuba would be able to maintain Nepal’s neutrality on Doklam stand-off during this trip. Amid doubts, he neither spoke a word on Doklam during the joint press meet, nor was there any mention of it in the joint press statement. Since taking a part in Sino-India disputes could be a diplomatic disaster for Nepal, being able to escape it can be considered Deuba’s success. However, since Deuba and Modi met twice in secret during the trip, there is no guarantee that they did not share any alternative positions or commitments on the Doklam dispute. In the meantime, as the result now suggests that deep diplomatic communications were taking place and the dispute was probably showing the possibility of a positive outcome, it is also conceivable that India did not force Deuba to take the side of India. If the conflict was reaching a resolution, Nepal’s support to India on Doklam would not matter much.
If Deuba, therefore, had been able to escape the issue of Nepal’s constitution amendment in Delhi, his visit would have been much less controversial. However, for him to gain success in Indo-Nepal relations, he has to be able to settle the material issues affecting relations of these two neighbours as mentioned above, which is unlikely to happen in his remaining term of some months. If more than usual treatment Deuba received in New Delhi and him being able to scape the Doklam dispute during the visit can be taken as some parameters of success, Nepal PM’s Delhi trip can be considered faintly successful.