Earlier this week, diplomats from India and Nepal held a meeting during which they reviewed the progress of various India-assisted projects in the Himalayan nation. They also agreed to hold the next meeting at a mutually convenient date.
The talks took place just two days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Nepali counterpart KP Sharma Oli spoke for the first time since Nepal’s issuance of a new map strained bilateral ties.
Oli called Modi on Independence Day and congratulated India’s recent election as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said in a statement.
“The leaders expressed mutual solidarity in the context of the efforts being made to minimise the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in both countries. Prime Minister offered India’s continued support to Nepal in this regard,” said the MEA statement.
A day after the conversation between the two leaders, Nepal’s ambassador to India, Nilamber Acharya, said that ties between the two nations are “close and friendly”. He told WION, “Telephonic conversations confirmed that we have close ties, and we can sit together in proper times and solve any problems or discuss shaping our relations. Talks show we are close and friendly.”
Just a few weeks ago, analysts were speculating what lay behind Oli’s efforts to antagonise its bigger neighbour—in May, Nepal had objected to a new road inaugurated by Union Minister Rajnath Singh, connecting Dharchula and Lipulekh.
Soon after, the Oli government issued a new map showing areas of Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura—some of which also features on India’s map—as part of its territory. After the country refused to back down, ties between the two countries deteriorated. Oli’s comments that Ram was born in Nepal had made headlines in India.
Concerns have also been raised about China’s growing clout in Nepal, with some reports and observers claiming that Nepal’s objection to India’s road reflects Kathmandu’s tilt towards Beijing (see here and here).
But analysts say Nepal’s recent overtures towards India signal that it wants to create a positive atmosphere before restarting dialogue.
Rajan Kumar, Associate Professor at School of International Studies, JNU, said that China cannot take away the historical, linguistic and religious connection that India has with Nepal.
“Nepal used to be one of the closest neighbours of India. We need to restore our ties and not be caught up in a competitive political brinkmanship from the two sides,” he said.
MV Rappai, a security analyst and honorary fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, told HuffPost India that Nepal’s issuance of the map was not in good sense. “These issues could have been resolved through talks. So they want to come back now.”
Ambassador Acharya had told WION that there might be a difference of opinion, but it can’t impact comprehensive ties. “We may differ, or have a problem in one or two aspects of relations but that can’t impact the entire spectrum of relationship. Our problem, small or big, we have to solve through friendly dialogue.”
Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a press release, said both the sides underlined the need for the expeditious implementation of bilateral projects. “In that connection, they agreed to undertake necessary measures to timely address problems and obstacles in the course of implementation.”
Worry about China?
Nepal was part of the quadrilateral meeting hosted by China last month where the countries — China, Nepal, Afghanistan and Pakistan — discussed coordination on Covid-19 response and boosting economic recovery.
Last week, China and Nepal said they would “support each other’s core interests and major concerns”, according to The Hindu. Both sides also agreed to take forward projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
However, Acharya told The Hindu that the quadrilateral meeting should not be a matter of concern for India-Nepal ties, a view backed by the analysts who spoke to HuffPost India.
On the matter of BRI, JNU’s Kumar said that China has made deep inroads in South Asia and it has become the easiest source of investment and technology to South Asian countries which need foreign direct investment.
“India’s best counter to Chinese influence in the region would be to enhance connectivity, co-build sustainable projects, re-establish cultural exchange programmes and help them in developing human capacity,” he said.
Prime Minister Oli’s remarks on Ayodhya and accusation that India was conspiring to throw him out of power also came as relations between the two neighbours plummeted.
Oli had on 13 July claimed that the “real” Ayodhya lies in Nepal and that Lord Ram was born in Thori in southern Nepal. Nepal’s foreign ministry had to issue a clarification, saying that remarks made by the Prime Minister “are not linked to any political subject and have no intention at all to hurt the feeling and sentiment of anyone”.
In June, he had alleged that meetings were being organised in India to overthrow his government. “There is news coming from Delhi about this. Look at the meetings being organised in India against Nepal’s decision to amend the Constitution to place the revised map of the country in the national emblem,”The Hindu quoted Oli as saying.