View from the Himalaya | What's changed between 2015 and 2023 - Hindustan Times

View from the Himalaya | What's changed between 2015's displeasure and 2023's much valued power deal

Jan 07, 2024 04:25 PM IST

As Nepal-India sign a historic power deal, the neighbours have come a long way from the terseness that marked the relationship eight years ago

India’s external affairs minister S Jaishankar’s visit to Nepal last week left a few standout messages in its wake, offering a glimpse of New Delhi’s foreign-policy architecture in its immediate neighbourhood, not least in Nepal.

India External Affairs minister S Jaishankar (left) with Nepal Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal 'Prachanda'(PTI) PREMIUM
India External Affairs minister S Jaishankar (left) with Nepal Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal 'Prachanda'(PTI)

One, Jaishankar underscored the continued evolution of multidimensional bilateral ties, with a strong emphasis on economic and cultural dimensions, a trend evidenced as far back as 2014 when Narendra Modi first visited Nepal as prime minister, a first by an Indian head of government in 17 years. “This is the land of Sita and Janak,” he declared. “Nepal-India relations are as old as the Himalayas and the Ganga.” Since then, he has made five visits to Nepal and each time, he makes it a point to underscore the cultural kinship between Nepal and India underpinned by two ancient civilizations — Hinduism and Buddhism. On the second day of his January 4-5 visit, Jaishankar visited Pashupatinath. Of his two dozen posts on X (formerly twitter), this received the highest number of engagements.

Two, Jaishankar’s Kathmandu visit underscored continuity. Nepal-India ties have witnessed a steady warming up since a low point in 2015-16 when New Delhi, unhappy with certain provisions of Nepal’s new Constitution, imposed a border blockade for months. Two election cycles on, the relationship has seen a steady uptick, with the ties developing in multifold areas. There is some possibility that a heavy trade surplus in India’s favour, a major irritant in bilateral ties, could be addressed to some extent.

This neatly ties up with a third point. In recent years, the bilateral partnership has expanded connectivity — in physical, digital and energy sectors — cornerstone of a growing collaboration, a feature duly underscored by Jaishankar. The two sides signed a landmark agreement on energy cooperation, which paves the way for Nepal to export its power to the vast Indian market. India will purchase up to 10,000 MW electricity in the next 10 years.

The agreement, observes Annapurna Express in its editorial, is a game-changer for Nepal’s hydropower sector because it has ensured market access for its electricity. International investors have been hesitant to invest in Nepal’s hydropower due to uncertainty about market access, though Nepal’s river systems and mountainous terrain offer natural ground to harness hydropower.

Fourth, while the power deal hogged the centrestage, the visit’s emphasis on broader people-to-people ties was noteworthy. Jaishankar’s meeting with Nepal’s cricket team and officials received warm welcome especially by the country’s young population. He also expressed long-term commitment to developing Nepal’s cricket, the subcontinent’s most popular sport. Nepal has made strong strides in cricket in recent years and qualified for the T20 World Cup in 2024.

Fifth, the details on the post-2015 earthquake reconstruction was far less covered by the media, both local and international. India has contributed to 71 projects, including the newly built Central Library at Nepal’s largest university, Tribhuvan University. This includes schools, health centres and a cultural heritage sector project undertaken as a collaborative effort in the aftermath of the 2015 Gorkha Earthquake. In April 2015, Operation Maitri (which entailed rescue, relief, rehabilitation, and reconstruction in the quake-hit districts) became India’s largest post-disaster assistance programme outside the country. January 4 marked the completion of most of the India-assisted projects, including a Buddhist heritage site, under the post-earthquake reconstruction.

Though the storyline of Nepal-India ties has laid strong emphasis on economic engagement and cultural diplomacy during Modi’s two tenures, his chief diplomat’s current effort certainly adds heft to it, not least because many Nepalis still associate him with a not-so-happy political legacy.

The 2015 saga

In his visit to Nepal as foreign secretary in 2015, Jaishankar tried to pressure then Prime Minister Sushil Koirala in amending the Constitution; New Delhi was particularly unhappy that the new document had failed to address issues related to minority communities. The Terai region had witnessed violent protests and deaths. Jaishankar’s last-minute plea went in vain. Days after his visit, the new Constitution was approved by an overwhelming majority in the Constituent Assembly with support from across the political spectrum. The Indian foreign ministry put out a statement in which it expressed concern over “the situation in several parts of the country bordering India continues to be violent” — the communities in question were concerned over their political marginalisation once the Constitution came into power.

This time around, when he landed in Kathmandu on the morning of January 4, Jaishankar appeared to be a different avatar. The low-key career diplomat has not only turned into a very influential minister in Modi’s cabinet. He has left a strong footprint in global diplomacy, with India’s strategic choices well-articulated in his much-acclaimed book ‘The India Way.’ With BJP close to completing its second term in office and poised for a possible third, and India’s steady ascent as an economic powerhouse, he commandeered a lot more respect in the corridors of power in Kathmandu.

Akhilesh Upadhyay is a Senior Fellow at IIDS, a Kathmandu-based think tank and former Editor-in-Chief of The Kathmandu Post. Views expressed are personal

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