Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala went to New Delhi, not hoping for much. His only worry was that bilateral relations should not get worse due to his visit, and that it would not stir a hornet\'s nest back home. On that score, he was successful.
Girija and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee are about the same age and as usual they hit it off in Hindi. But after the formality of the banquets were over last week, the bureaucracies took over and got down to brass tacks. What does Nepal\'s sovereignty entail, how much can Nepal assert its independence vis-a-vis India? Very fundamental questions.
This time India had done its homework well on trade, security, and the 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship. Days before the visit, academics, ex-diplomats who had served in Kathmandu, and Indian-Nepali political figures from Sikkim, Assam, Darjeeling and Dehra Dun were brought to New Delhi to analyse the implications of the treaty.
The meeting and visit coincided with a realisation here that India had gone too far in exaggerating the ISI threat from across the open border in Nepal. Indian public opinion was manipulated so effectively in the aftermath of the hijacking to portray Nepal\'s open border as a backdoor for terrorists that New Delhi now had to show it was doing something about it.
India was caught in its own trap. For despite security concerns, there are major geopolitical and trade benefits for India from the open border. Hence the pre-visit meeting of Indian-Nepalis to discuss the treaty and the open border.
Participants at the meeting, which included Sikkim\'s Chief Minister Pawan Chamling and a representative of Subhas Ghising from Darjeeling, analysed what would happen if either side gave the mandated one-year notice to abrogate the treaty. Chamling didn\'t seem to think much would happen an open border with Nepal would not affect his state. Ghising\'s group, on the other hand, predictably wanted the treaty scrapped because it allows Nepalis to live in India which goes against Ghising\'s project to designate Indian-Nepalis as "Gorkhali".
For India, there are several disadvantages of closing the border:
. It will put Nepal at a geopolitical equidistance between India and China, since the Himalaya is no longer the physical obstacle it traditionally has been
. Since Indian business profits vastly from having Nepal as an extension of its own market, closing the border would allow cheaper Chinese products to flood Nepal
. Nepalis of Indian origin dominate the Nepal economy, a closed border would hamper their business
. Even with a closed border, there is no guarantee that ISI activities in Nepal will cease.
In an interview with The Times of India just before his visit, Prime Minister Koirala let it drop that India could go ahead and close the border if it wanted to. "It is impossible for Nepal to close the border, but if India wants the border fenced, we have no objection. It will also serve Nepal\'s interest," he told the paper. The supposedly chance remark pre-empted the conclusions of the New Delhi meeting on the 1950 treaty.
The first sentence the Indian prime minister spoke as he greeted Koirala at the steps of Rashtrapati Bhavan were: "The open border is the foundation of India-Nepal friendship." In Nepal, however, there is much more ambivalence about the open border: it is an economic safety valve allowing the free flow of Nepalis to work in India (at least 1.5 million people at any given time). There is two-way traffic at the open border: cheap manpower from northern Bihar and even Orissa move in for seasonal work in Nepal.
But it is this same border that has distorted the Nepali economy by fostering smuggling as a national past-time over the years, harming healthy industrial growth. The open border has also fostered an almost complete economic dependence on India, which New Delhi can use to put the squeeze, as it did in the 1988-89 blockade.
Koirala\'s visit was low key in the Indian media, and overshadowed by the Kashmir massacres and the kidnapping of a famous film actor in Bangalore. But relations have stopped sliding, new channels of communication have been opened so that things don\'t reach similar crisis points again.
One lesson learnt from this year\'s deterioration in Nepal-India relations was the role played by an ill-informed section of the Indian media that willingly used planted material calculated to wreck ties. The \'Nepal Gameplan\' leak was rejected by most professional journalists, and only India Today carried it verbatim, but that was enough to cause damage.
On issues like hydropower exports, it is clear that India\'s priorities are not the same as Nepal\'s. On Kalapani, Nepal\'s leadership is still not sure whether there was a secret deal or not in 1961 to allow India to place troops in Kalapani.
The Indo-Nepal joint communique was delayed by 24 hours not because of security issues, or the ISI, or even by Kalapani, but by Indian bureaucratic reluctance to admit that there had been submergence in Nepal. In the end, it was Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh and Foreign Secretary Lalit Man Singh who leaned on the Indian negotiators to accept inundation had taken place.
At last count, there were more than 35 bilateral committees looking at all aspects of Nepal-India ties. No one knows what these committees do, whether they meet or not, or if they do, what they resolve. No wonder, then, that small tiffs get magnified into hysteria. Now, India and Nepal have set up a "super commission" headed by foreign ministers.
The visit made both India and Nepal realise that the ground reality is totally transformed since 1950. India is no longer newly free, and Nepal is no longer an oligarchy. The visit rebuilt a crumbling foundation for two mature neighbouring democracies to treat each other with dignity, equity and justice.