Something appears not quite right about the India-Nepal relationship and it’s not just to do with speculation about China’s growing inroads into Nepal and the ‘Kathmandu-Beijing tango’. It’s also about Bimstec and Saarc; it’s about confusion over the status of a key expert committee report on taking bilateral ties forward; all of which boils down to chill winds blowing between Kathmandu and Delhi.
But Nepal’s Ambassador to India Nilamber Acharya insists that “all’s well” in the bilateral relationship. In an exclusive chat with SNI in Delhi, he said there is no “tilt towards China” but added the caveat: “It’s our neighbour, its role in the world is growing politically and economically and we want to have friendly relations with all countries in the world.”
Then he clarified some more: “Our relations with China should not come at the cost of our traditionally good ties with India. I’m sure that our relations with India will grow faster.”
But it would seem that under the Communist government of Prime Minister K.P.Sharma Oli, China has a special place. There have been a succession of high-level visits from Nepal to China since May. Earlier this month, Nepalese foreign minister Pradip Kumar Gyawali was in China and in May Nepal’s President Bidhya Devi Bhandari was in Beijing on a nine-day visit which included participation in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Last month, PM Oli accompanied by his Army Chief General Purna Chandra Thapa, travelled to China. India, which has long-standing ties with the Nepal Army, must have been disconcerted by reports that the two militaries will work to expand and upgrade their linkages.
Nilamber Acharya indicated there was enough reason for Nepal to look for help from China. “We’re focusing on the economic agenda in Nepal. We want to utilise all possibilities to develop our economy for our people’s prosperity.” He noted that in a changing world scenario, “no one could ignore the emergence of new possibilities.”
On growing Chinese investments in Nepal, the envoy said: “We have ties with many countries. China too has relations with many countries of the world. It is full of possibilities.”
As for India-Nepal relations, he said the two countries are development partners and can cooperate in various sectors such as infrastructure, connectivity, agriculture and education. He continued: “There are incomparably vast possibilities of developing our ties with India which is in the interest of both countries. One friendship doesn’t come in the way of another friendship. We’re not running away from India. We’re building closer ties with India.”
The ambassador mentioned the close ties between the two countries not only in the geographic sense but also in terms of the two nations “political, social and cultural value system.” Differences, if any, do happen but there were a lot of positives, he said.
But are the negatives outweighing the positives? Nepal’s insistence on reviving Saarc (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) may be only partly driven by the fact that it is the current chairman of the body. It may have deepened suspicions in Delhi about the motives of the Oli government and its attitude towards Bimstec (which South Block favours since it excludes Pakistan).
“Bimstec is a good thing and we’re its members as well of Saarc,” Acharya said carefully but added, “I don’t think there is thinking in any quarter that one is a substitute for the other. It (Saarc) has its own peculiar composition.” Asked if it should be revived, he replied, “It’s not dead. It’s facing some difficulties.”
There is another irritant: the status of the report by the Eminent Persons Group of which Acharya was a member. The group looked at the various treaties and agreements (including the 1950 Peace and Friendship Treaty) and was to suggest amendments in the form of a comprehensive report. Ambassador Acharya said, “It was constituted to enhance our relations and have things that are in tune with the 21st century.”
It was to have been submitted to the prime ministers of both countries, but a year since the report was readied, there is no sign of that happening. Acharya said: “The report is complete and will be submitted soon. How soon, it’s difficult to say,” and then went on to say: “I don’t see any difficulty in submitting the report and in it being accepted.”
It’s a little hard to fathom why the future course of India-Nepal ties should be held hostage to some protocol issue. Or is the protocol issue only a reflection of the discord between Delhi and Kathmandu?