The recent visit of the Nepalese Prime Minister to India can be termed as a success in not just diversifying bilateral engagements but also countering the influence of China in the region.
Indian Prime Minister Modi and his Nepalese counterpart Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal
India and Nepal have historic ties but also a long history of suspicion and misunderstandings. Recent friction includes the appearance of a tri-junction area in Nepalese maps last year which India considers its own territory.
Therefore, the visit of Nepalese Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal (‘Prachanda’) to India for four days earlier this month was keenly observed, and his statement upon return that the visit had been an ‘astounding success’ has been noted with care in India and elsewhere.
The two sides came forward to formalise their cooperation through seven bilateral agreements covering key strategic areas of trade and commerce, cross-border petroleum pipeline, development of integrated check posts, hydroelectric projects, and payment mechanisms. This goes on to show that Nepal is making proactive steps towards diversifying its engagement with India and broadening the horizons of cooperation even further.
The HIT Formula as articulated by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi regarding the relationship with Nepal back in 2014 may be coming to fruition as the two countries build connectivity across all different domains marked by this formula - the ‘Highways, I-ways and Trans-ways’. It is important here to note that Nepal and India have also inaugurated the Bathnaha-Nepal railway line that connects the two countries through the transit route of railways. Along with this, it has been decided to provide training to railway personnel of Nepal in Indian railway institutes. This move will add to the capacity building of Nepal’s workforce even further. Nepal’s efforts to export electricity to Bangladesh have also been successful as the country gets India’s support through access to Indian power grids. As Nepal and Bangladesh do not share a border with each other, it becomes essential for Nepal to use India’s power grids to engage in export of electricity to Bangladesh. In the same breath, India has also granted Nepal the access to its inland waterways which becomes even more important for Nepal as the country is landlocked and India’s inland waterway can become strategically significant for Nepal.
Apart from these developments, the two sides have also agreed for cooperation in the hydro-electricity projects and pipelines. The two sides reached an agreement on long-term power trade, under which India will import 10,000 MW from Nepal in the next ten years. The ongoing project of the Motihari-Amlekhgunj petroleum pipeline also entered its second phase of development. Inaugurated in 2019, the pipeline has become South Asia's first trans-border petroleum pipeline. The talks of another pipeline linking Siliguri in India to Jhapa in Nepal are also underway. These projects put together would not only provide Nepal with a strong economic output but would also allow India to maintain its sphere of influence over Nepal and the realisation of the ‘neighbourhood first’ policy.
It is also to be noted however that over the past years, the Nepal and India relationship has had its fair share of turbulence and even though this visit marks a much sought after relief in the strained ties, the issues of contention remain relevant. The territorial disputes and disagreements regarding the India-Nepal border have, for a long time, plagued the otherwise cordial partnership between these two nations. Most of the 1,850-km border between the two sides has been demarcated, except for two disputed sections at Kalapani and Susta. Nepal triggered a border row in 2020 by issuing a new political map that showed Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Lipulekh – all controlled by India – as part of Nepalese territory. The row affected ties for several months before a sustained outreach by the Indian side helped improve the situation.
However, the recent bilateral dialogue may provide a positive way forward for both the countries towards developing a consensus on the border issues. Indian Prime Minister Modi told a joint media interaction after the meeting that the issue will be resolved in keeping with the strong religious and cultural ties between the two sides and in a spirit of friendship. On the Nepalese side, Prime Minister Prachanda also called for bilateral diplomatic mechanisms to bring the issues to a resolution.
The China Question
This Nepalese visit to India also makes it clear how the Nepal government is trying to balance both its immediate major powers, India, and China. However, for India the issue of balancing China’s influence in South Asia is paramount. The ‘neighbourhood first’ policy is not only about increasing India’s ties with the key states in the subcontinent but also deterring China from making inroads in India’s immediate neighbourhood. The one way to do this is to create pathways towards stronger relationships with the neighbouring countries, which is precisely what India is attempting to do with its engagements with Nepal. It is therefore imperative for India that its ties with Nepal go beyond the cultural domain and people-to-people relations to acquire more strategic depth.
For Nepal however, it is in its interest to balance the two rival superpowers for its own benefit. The incumbent Nepalese Prime Minister has been said to be more inclined towards cooperation with China, however this visit may have changed the tides in favour of the India-Nepal relationship. The India-Nepal railway connectivity project would seek to counter the long-standing ambitions of China regarding linking the territories of Nepal and China via railways. In this context it is also important to pay attention towards the Nepal-China trans Himalayan connectivity network as a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In this regard, the Indian efforts to build railway connectivity with Nepal would serve to counter China’s direct involvement. Apart from this, the plethora of different projects announced as an outcome of the recent dialogue may add to building Indian might against the Chinese efforts to increase economic investments in projects across Nepal.
The outcome of the meeting may suggest that apart from increasing its own strategic influence in Nepal, India also aims to make the country self-reliant by assisting in energy exports and providing resources towards capacity building in significant sectors. This can add to the foundation of this long-standing relationship even more.
Neighbourhood first is an oft-repeated component of India’s foreign policy. Unless India manages its periphery well in the subcontinent, its pursuit of a more significant role in the Asian region and the world will remain suboptimal, is what is clear from this Nepalese visit. The bilateral relations between the two countries have significantly strengthened over the last few years in all areas of cooperation. This visit underscores the importance given by both sides in adding further momentum to the bilateral partnership.