Indian foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s visit to Nepal has finally put Nepal-India ties into formal diplomatic frame. Shringla’s two-day roller-coaster trip looked like a charm offensive to coax an incensed neighbour. He invoked language, culture and civilisational ethos to bring strained Nepal-India relations back on track. He first caught the fancy of many with his fluency in Nepali language. Upon his arrival at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, he spoke with journalists in Nepali, savoury ideas to win back the hearts of Nepalis who have not yet forgot the hardships brought by the unofficial Indian embargo in 2015 and are enraged over the encroachment of Nepali territories in the far-west.
Significance Nonetheless, Shringla’s trip carries significance on several counts. It has virtually ended a state of dialoguelessness between the two nations. Now the secretary-level mechanism of two nations has been activated to expedite bilateral cooperation projects. More importantly, the territorial dispute has become a formal agenda of two nations with India agreeing to resolve the territorial dispute through dialogue and negotiation. By sending Shringla to Nepal, the Modi government has signalled that India does not want to handle Nepal-India ties through intelligence and security agencies alone. For months, Nepal-India ties were frozen at the diplomatic and political level after both nations got embroiled in the battle of maps. The bilateral relations started to deteriorate after India in November last year published its new political map that included Nepal’s Limpiyadhura, Kalapani and Lipulek into its territory. Nepal also responded to India’s unilateral act with similar move. Nepal has collected dozens of maps and documents as evidence to bring back the encroached territories. As per the Sugauli Treaty 1816, these sites belong to Nepal. Nepal government and people are united in demanding that India leave the encroached territories to Nepal. As Nepal amended the constitution to include new map in its coat of arms, India blew a fuse. It continued to decline Nepal’s persistent calls to sit for dialogue to sort out the territorial issue. It is obvious Nepal lacks geopolitical wherewithal that could impel India to immediately listen to the former’s serious concern and demand. India was not in a position to reject Nepal’s pleas for talks constantly. Its growing military trade-off with China may be one vital factor forcing it to pursue its Neighbourhood First policy. Whatever the reason, India eventually came to a negotiating table to deal with emerging issues with its small neighbour. This indeed is in the advantage of both neighbours. It is yet to see whether Shringla’s soft power tactic will enable India to sort out a string of bilateral irritants, including the territorial dispute or just procrastinate only to let them crop up later. In the face of COVID-19 pandemic, India has also brought into play the vaccine diplomacy to promote relations with neighbours. Shringla said that once a vaccine was rolled out, meeting Nepal’s requirements would be a priority for India. Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines, has partnered with the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca for manufacturing and distributing anti-COVID-19 vaccine. The health diplomacy is a new found foreign policy tool to persuade both friends and foes in an era of the coronavirus crisis. Let’s see how India’s vaccine diplomacy helps improve ties with Nepal. Suave and sophisticated, Shringla focused on cultural and economic areas, refraining himself from touching on the contested subjects. In a public lecture, he offered four pillars of Nepal-India relations - development cooperation, stronger connectivity, expanded infrastructure and economic projects, and easier and enhanced access to educational opportunities in India for the young Nepali people. He even went on to state that ‘Nepal is fundamental to India’s Neighbourhood First approach’ and his country will work to Nepal's priority. No doubt, this apolitical approach is fine given that India’s image as Nepal’s development partner is not encouraging. Many joint cooperation projects are in limbo for decades. India has been accused of hogging vital projects, mainly the hydropower but failing to complete them in time. The widening practical cooperation holds potential to transcend mutual mistrust and differences, creating ground to forging highest level understanding. Unlike his predecessor S. Jaishankar, who is now India’s Minister for External Affairs, Shringla has stricken a conciliatory tone throughout his trip. His statements are music to the ears of Nepali audience. But the million-dollar question is: Can Shringla as the chief bureaucrat of South Block walk the talk? We knew he has a brilliant command of Nepali. Equally, he must grasp the running sentiments of Nepalis, which is the key to put Nepal-India relations on the equal footing.
Oli’s message In his meeting with Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, Shringla conveyed that Indian PM Narendra Modi wanted to take the bilateral relations forward by making them ‘good.’ In response, Oli asked the Indian foreign secretary also to convey his message to Modi – Nepal is for resolving the territorial dispute through dialogue and in a peaceful manner. Now Shringla must pass this message to Modi effectively. In fact, the issues like borderland dispute, revision of the 1950 Peace and Friendship Treaty and implementation of EPG report are unlikely to be settled at the bureaucratic and technical level. It is only India’s establishment that can fix the long-running disputes with Nepal. For this to happen, it should shed flawed Nehruvian notion of seeing Nepal as security frontier against China. Unless India respects Nepal’s sovereignty, right to self-determination and dignity in true sense, the two neighbours continue to confront unintended bilateral glitches in the future, too.
(Deputy Executive Editor of The Rising Nepal, Subedi writes regularly on politics, foreign affairs and other contemporary issues)