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India and Nepal to rebuild trust

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
April 6, 2018

Nepal's new Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli's visit to India is expected to redefine relations between the two countries amid Kathmandu's growing closeness to Beijing. Murali Krishnan reports from New Delhi.

Indian PM Modi with his Nepalese counterpart OIi in New Delhi - 2016
Image: picture alliance/AA/I. Khan

Ahead of Nepalese Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli's three-day visit to India, Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali said the two neighboring countries believe it's an appropriate time to mend bilateral ties. Gyawali admitted that Indian-Nepalese ties have reached a historic low.

"There won't be any new agreements. We have many pending issues. The visit will focus on taking them into implementation," Gyawali said

New Delhi is aware it has to improve relations with Kathmandu, especially after the 2015 economic blockade in Nepal. The conflict was a result of the Indian-origin ethnic group Madhesis' protest against the Himalayan country's new constitution, which they said discriminated against them and left them politically marginalized with insufficient representation in local and national governments. Nepali politicians accused India of orchestrating the political unrest that led to the blockade.

Nepal's growing ties with China

PM Oli, who arrived in New Delhi on Friday, enjoys a strong mandate in Nepal's parliament. Since coming to power on February 15, he has been working to consolidate Nepal's ties with China.

Read more: Nepal votes in first parliamentary election since 1999

Nepal has drifted closer to China since 2016. The previous government had signed 10 key agreements on trade and transit with Beijing in order to reduce the country's dependence on India. China has heavily invested in some 25 major reconstruction projects in Nepal as well.

Kathmandu has also lent support to Beijing's multi-billion-dollar "One Belt, One Road" initiative that aims to enhance connectivity and cooperation between China and the rest of Asia.

New Delhi is suspicious of Kathmandu's closeness with China and is trying to reset ties with Nepal.

"Until now, Nepal has been trying to keep a balance in its ties with India and China. India must ensure that Nepal doesn't get too close to China because Beijing aims to counter New Delhi's influence in the region," Happymon Jacob, a New Delhi-based international relations expert, told DW.

By visiting India, PM Oli has demonstrated that he doesn't want to ignore New Delhi despite friendly ties with Beijing, Jacob added.

"But India is skeptical about Oli's foreign policy. It was PM Oli who took Nepal closer to China during his first term in office. India is concerned that Nepal-China ties could become even stronger during Oli's current term," underlined Jacob.

Read more: Nepal's new PM seeks to balance ties with India, China

Nepal has drifted closer to China since 2016
Nepal has drifted closer to China since 2016Image: Getty Images/L. Zhang

Equal partners?

India is Nepal's biggest trade partner, with the Himalayan country receiving all of its petroleum products from across the border.

"It is significant that Oli has chosen India for his first foreign trip since the start of his new term as premier," Ashok Mehta, a security expert, told DW.

"Both India and Nepal must forget the past and move forward in their relationship," he added.

Lalit Mansingh, India's former foreign secretary, believes New Delhi must accept that geopolitical realities are rapidly changing in a multipolar world.

"We should not resent Nepal if it forges new alliances. At the same time, we must not ignore issues that could adversely affect our security and vital national interests. China and Pakistan is part of this axis," Mansingh, who was also a former Indian envoy to Nepal, told DW.

The fact that Nepal's regional position is improving is evident from the fact that both India and Pakistan are reaching out. In February, India's Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Kathmandu as part of a goodwill mission. Last month, Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi also visited Nepal to congratulate Oli on his election as prime minister. It was the first official visit to Nepal by a Pakistani head of government in over two decades.

"India can no longer play the role of Nepal's 'Big Brother.' It cannot treat Nepal and Bhutan like its protectorates. These countries demand to be treated as equals," Mahesh Jaishankar, a research associate at the Centre for Asian Strategic Studies, told DW.

India's relationship with Nepal is currently undergoing a vital shift. Many experts are of the view that the obligation is with India to maintain balance in relations with its tiny neighbor.

Read more: China increases influence over Tibetan refugees in Nepal

Nepal's economy still rebuilding after quake

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11