Nepali PM travels to India to repair strained ties | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 19.02.2016
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Nepali PM travels to India to repair strained ties

Nepali PM K.P. Oli has embarked on a state visit to India, in a bid to improve ties and resolve the thorny issues afflicting the partnership. Will the trip usher in a period of amity between the two neighbors?

The prime minister's six-day tour of India, starting on February 19, is aimed at resetting the two countries' uneasy relationship and restoring confidence. "The main objective of my visit is to bring bilateral ties back on track and further strengthen them," Oli was quoted by local media as saying ahead of the trip.

This is the Nepali PM's first foreign trip since assuming office in October 2015, and comes just days after a trade blockade on the Nepal-India border was lifted.

During his visit, the premier will meet his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi as well as other government officials. He will also engage in discussions over a host of prickly issues affecting the two countries.

Ties between Kathmandu and New Delhi have been plagued by mutual distrust in recent months following India's criticism of Nepal's new constitution.

The charter, which was adopted by Nepal's Constituent Assembly in September last year, came after years of political deadlock and is the nation's first constitution to be written by elected representatives.

The document divides the Himalayan republic into seven federal states, each with three levels of government: federal, provincial and local.

A troubled relationship

However, the charter has been met with resistance by some ethnic minorities such as the Tharus and Madhesis, who share close cultural and linguistic ties with Indians living across the border. They are fearful that the new boundaries will leave them politically marginalized, and hence not fairly represented in local and central government..

Protest gegen Verfassungsänderung in Nepal

The adoption of the new Nepali constitution triggered prolonged strikes and violent protests by some ethnic minorities

As a result, protests broke out in Nepal's southern plains, where the Madhesi population is concentrated, with Kathmandu accusing New Delhi of supporting the unrest.

The demonstrations and the ensuing trade blockade had a deep impact on the daily lives of Nepali citizens, who faced an acute shortage of fuel and other essential commodities. Earlier this month, the Madhesis announced their withdrawal from the protests, including the border blockade.

Still, the hardship faced by ordinary citizens tilted the Nepali public opinion against India, which was seen by many as supporting and enforcing the blockade, said George Varughese, Nepal country representative for The Asia Foundation and senior visiting scholar and professor at the University of Wyoming.

"The physical hardship for almost every Nepali household in the past several months was especially painful because Nepal has yet to recover from the devastating earthquakes that shook the landlocked country in April-May last year and was heading into the winter season when it all happened," the expert told DW, noting that as a result, Indo-Nepali relations are currently at a historic low.

But Varughese expressed hope that the PM's visit to India may mend the troubled relationship. "Prime Minister Oli was prominent among those who accused India of imposing a blockade. His visit therefore can be viewed as a genuine attempt to make amends and repair relations," he said.

Resolving issues

Nevertheless, the unresolved issues related to the constitution could still derail any potential progress made by the two sides during Oli's visit. Although Nepal recently amended its new constitution to bolster participation of the Madhesis in parliament, community leaders still fret their demands have not been met.

In this context, experts caution against India adopting an overbearing attitude towards its northern neighbor. "New Delhi's recent actions generated considerable nationalist fervor within Nepal; it led both Nepalese commoners and elites to turn towards China and undermined much of the goodwill that India had garnered in the wake of its earthquake relief efforts," said Sumit Ganguly, India expert and professor of Political Science at the Indiana University Bloomington.

In order to clear up misunderstandings on both sides, analysts say India should provide a full and formal clarification of its position during the blockade. At the same time, they call on the Nepali government to address India's concerns over the new constitution.

"Both Kathmandu and New Delhi could agree that politics in Nepal would not be allowed to spill over into India and affect trade and commerce flows between the two countries," said The Asia Foundation's Varughese, stressing that more emphasis should be laid on promoting people-to-people ties.

A key partner

Besides the Madhesi problem, the Indian government is also worried about a host of other issues, said Ganguly. "India is deeply concerned about Nepal becoming a sanctuary for terrorists, in addition to China's increasing presence in the country," he noted.

Tucked between China and India, Nepal has become a site of Indo-Chinese competition as they both jockey for influence.

In recent years, Beijing has stepped up its economic engagement by investing vast sums of money in the country's power plants, highways, an airport and telecommunication facilities.

China's expanding footprint has caused concern in New Delhi which has long viewed Nepal as part of its strategic backyard.

Varughese says Nepal is probably the only country in South Asia where it is easier for India to contain and counter Chinese influence, owing to the close socio-cultural, economic and geographical affinity between the two countries.

However, the expert warns, the Indian leadership cannot afford to be complacent about the natural advantages it enjoys with regard to its neighbor. "Nepal is very important to India, although sometimes that significance is not very evident from Kathmandu's vantage point."