Reset Nepal ties with speed, sensitivity

Reset Nepal ties with speed, sensitivity

Nepali Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli's three-day visit to India came at a critical juncture. India-Nepal relations are in serious trouble and Nepal's embrace of China is growing. Hopefully, Oli's talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi would have cleared the air and set in motion a reset of relations. During Oli's visit to Delhi, India agreed to build and provide financial support for a strategic railway line linking Kathmandu with Raxaul in Bihar. India has also promised to develop inland waterways to transport Nepali cargo to the sea. These infrastructure projects should provide landlocked Nepal with cost-effective movement of cargo to and through India to other countries via the sea. Already, India is constructing cross-border railway lines, including those linking Jayanagar with Janakpur and Jogbani with Biratnagar. These will deepen India-Nepal co-operation.

India perceives Oli to be 'pro-China'. This is not without reason. During his first stint as prime minister, he turned to China for fuel during the 2015 economic crisis and followed that up by signing 36 agreements with Beijing, including a transit trade agreement that envisages Nepal's use of Tianjin as a transit point for its trade with third countries. It was aimed at reducing Nepal's dependence on India. In effect, such moves by the Oli government have increased China's strategic influence in Kathmandu. India's concerns over China's growing grip over Nepal are understandable as was its concern over Oli's use of an anti-India plank during his campaign in the November 2017 general elections. Still, India will do well to do some introspection. After all, it was Delhi's imperious behaviour towards Nepal and its insensitivity to the Nepali people's suffering during the 2015 economic blockade that forced Nepal to turn to China for help. It also made India unpopular among the Nepali masses. Delhi has only itself to blame for China's rising profile in Nepal. Unlike India, China is seen as a benign and helpful country by the Nepali people.

Soon after assuming the reins in Kathmandu, Oli said he would reach out to other countries to increase his leverage with India. This is a strategy that every sovereign country would pursue. Instead of sulking over Oli's embrace of Beijing, India must match China's economic outreach to South Asia. Nepal has joined China's Belt and Road Initiative. What is stopping India from implementing a similar connectivity and development initiative? India has promised to build hydropower, road and rail projects in Nepal but unlike the Chinese railways, which are steaming rapidly towards the Nepali border, India's projects are moving ever so slowly. Geography has bestowed India with the advantage in Nepal, it should not be frittered away through wrong-headed diplomacy.

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