8-14 August 2014 #719

Great expectations

New Delhi’s foreign policy shift in dealing with neighbours offers Nepal a chance to redefine ties
Anurag Acharya
Before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Kathmandu on Sunday, Nepalis had mixed feelings about his personal and political agenda. Most Nepalis were not exactly jumping with joy, unlike the political leaders who were behaving as if Dasain had already arrived. Railways, highways, hydroprojects, hospitals – every leader wanted a free gift.

After his 45 minute address to parliament where he acknowledged Nepal’s historic changes, his popularity soared in inverse proportion to the disapproval of our own leadership. It was a fresh departure in Indo-Nepal relations, which had hit the rock-bottom many times in the last two decades.

As it turned out, India isn’t planning to gift us a hydroproject, but did promise to immediately start work on reviving the Pancheswor dam. He announced a USD 1 billion concessional loan package that will at once counter Chinese investment in infrastructure, as well as keep at bay multilateral donors.

Modi hit all the right notes: carefully dispelling any doubts about where the Buddha was born or that Nepal was a sovereign nation, not that we needed any reminding. He assured Nepalis that India was ready to walk shoulder-to-shoulder for their progress, but asserted that Nepal’s politicians must show leadership. What he really meant was: if you want us to stop interfering, don’t come running to us with your problems. Less than 24 hours later, a group of leaders met him and did exactly that.

It does not bode well for leaders of a sovereign nation to go crying like a bullied child on the first day at school to tattle to the principal. Nepal’s Madhesis have fought long and hard for their rights and dignity against an insensitive hill establishment. And over the years, meaningful gains have been made, thanks to their growing assertion in the streets and in the constituent assembly. Leaders from the Tarai must have faith in the Madhesi constituency and their own leadership, and continue their struggle for political space rather than seeking patronage elsewhere.

Despite several days of marathon talks to prepare for the Modi visit, Nepal’s political parties could not muster a consensus on a draft proposal for power trade. The Indian draft had a few loopholes where amendments could have been suggested. Clause 3(b) of the proposed draft implied that Nepal’s hydropower could be developed exclusively with Indian investment or on a joint-venture with Nepal. This is not just impinging upon rights of a sovereign nation, but also violates Article 6 of the 1996 Energy Trade Agreement between the two countries that gives freedom to each side to enter into separate agreements with a third country for its benefit. Similarly, clause 4 (b) restricts licensed foreign producers in Nepal from trading their electricity in the Indian market, and 4(c) restricts the energy traders from fixing rate for electricity according to market price.

We now have 45 days to get back to them with an amended draft. Then there are other pending issues like settlement of outstanding border disputes that have affected Indo-Nepal border towns. This also seems a right time for Nepal to push through long standing plan for joint regulation to curb various cross border crimes including human trafficking, and smuggling of arms, drugs, animal parts and other contraband items. Facing threats of terrorism and counterfeit Indian currency, a regulated border, not necessarily restricting movements on either side, is in India’s interest as well.

From his well-scripted PR move to bring Jeet Bahadur home, to expressing empathy for victims of the Sunkosi landslide, offering a grand puja at Pasupatinath, and going walkabout on Kathmandu streets, Narendra Modi tried to change Nepali perceptions of big brother India. He also seemed determined to whitewash his image from a radical Hindu nationalist back home, to a leader of an emerging superpower. His decision to resist the temptation of commenting on Nepal’s secularism, ongoing debate on federalism or the monarchy stems from that.

Narendra Modi has offered a promise of change in New Delhi’s approach in dealing with its neighbours. But in the art of diplomacy, the devil is in the details. The new man in New Delhi may have sent all the right signals in Kathmandu, but it is the babus sitting in South Block and in Lainchaur who must walk his talk.


Read also:

Speaking truth to power, Editorial

Modifiable relations, Damakant Jayshi

Modi-fying Indo-Nepal ties, Damankant Jayshi

Whose Madhes? Rubeena Mahato

Come together

Watered down

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