Khadga Prasad Oli, the newly elected Prime Minister of Nepal, will visit New Delhi on April 6. His three-day visit comes at a pivotal juncture in the history of the landlocked nation that has elected its first stable government in a decade. The success or the failure of the trip will be decided by how well India has adjusted to the new reality of its South Asian neighbours playing India against China, but also by its large heartedness.
In the run-up to the elections, there was speculation in New Delhi about the direction that the new government would take towards India and China. The regional contestation between the two Asian giants has forced Nepal to tread lightly and carefully. The win of the Communists led by Oli in Kathmandu has exacerbated that feeling of uneasiness in Delhi that it may be losing a close ally in its neighbour. The relations nosedived between the two countries when Oli was the PM and India imposed a highly unpopular blockade on Nepal. His return to power showed lack of India’s political influence over the new government and also its inability to sway the masses in its favour. On the contrary, Oli won on an anti-India plank and an independent foreign policy. His victory was a firm message to India that its Himalayan neighbour does not want to be treated shabbily by the Indian state.
India has been making efforts to make amends. Prime Minister Modi dispatched Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj to Kathmandu to meet Oli even before he was sworn in. This is unusual. She met other leaders across the political spectrum and gave assurances that India was there to help.
From this standpoint, Oli’s visit gives New Delhi an opportunity to reset its ties and make a fresh beginning. It has to convince Nepal that it has no desire to meddle in their internal affairs and would support their development agenda. India had tried to force Nepal to amend its secular Constitution, which was resented trenchantly by the Communists. Besides the harm that the blockade caused to the ties between the two neighbours, Nepalis have many grievances against the Indian government. Hence the main agenda, as has been identified in the Nepali press, is not just economic, but is also aimed at creating ample geographical space that gives Nepalis dignity. And this would mean how Indian border forces treat them, as well as how hundreds of thousands of Nepali workers are treated in India. A Nepal watcher said, “He (Oli) wants to utilise the relationship with India to bring benefits for the large cross-section of the Nepali population in India.”
He is looking at projects — and so would India — at reviving the railway line between India and Janakpur and building a new one to Nepalgunj. These projects have been lying idle for long years due to political lethargy. It is only now that India has woken up by kickstarting the railway project after China announced that they would bring their high tech train to Kathmandu.
Oli’s long laundry list involves other connectivity projects, including allowing Himalayan Airline (Chinese funded though) to fly to India. He allegedly has some interest in it and knows that flying to different destinations in India would make the airline viable. Also, he wants more seats for Nepalis in Indian universities, but also at the same time, wants India to help in building more educational institutes back home. In addition to this, there is a demand for assistance in building and training the next generation of media and communication experts.
Instead of large projects that take forever to build, the Nepali PM wants smaller projects worth Rs 4-5 crores. The Nepali PM also expects India to diversify its investment by focusing on other parts of the Himalayan country, like the northern part, rather than just Terai,
Lastly, Oli wants to take forward his nationalist agenda by raising the issue of harassment that Nepali workers face at the Indo-Nepal border. In a recent interaction with such workers, the Nepali PM was quite moved by this meeting and had sworn to bring change.
Oli, according to sources close to him, is a man who keeps grudges, and with India, he has many. In many ways, it is a win-win trip for Oli and India would be mindful of holding a weak hand against a man who has most of the aces.