By Sankar Ray
Political circles in Nepal are keenly watching how much the Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba will score gains in his first bilateral visit (1-3 April 2022) after taking over as the PM in July last year. Moreover, the visit takes place during the year of election to the National Assembly of Nepal. It is not that it is his first visit to India as the PM. During his first tenure as the PM in February 1996 when Pamulaparthi Venkata Narasimha Rao was the Indian Prime Minister, Deuba came to India as the then PM. He took along with him prasada (sandalwood) from Samrajeswor Pashupatinath Mahadev for Narasimha Rao who was pleasantly surprised at the gesture. Expectedly, the Nepali premier will repeat the gesture for his present counterpart Narendra Damodardas Modi.
In 1996, Deuba visited India that was fully committed to secularism while Royal Nepal was a Hindu state. Now it has changed upside down. Nepal ceased to be a Hindu state in 2015, while India under the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-dictated National Democratic Alliance government in India, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party gravitates towards a ‘Hindu Rashtra.’ Deuba’s party, Nepali Congress is broadly secular. For the PM of Nepal, the diplomatic stance has to be cautious as it’s for him a tightrope walk.
However, Deuba is no new to India, but his camaraderie was with leaders of Indian National Congress. Towards his counterpart and the latter’s party BJP, his steps will be more diplomatic than cordial…The erstwhile PM Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli has been pronouncedly anti-Indian, quite unlike Deuba.
To be frank, Nepali intelligentsia has become more critical of India during the twenty-six year gap. The reason was Modi government’s more-than-implicit encouragement to the Madhesi parties that have been at loggerheads with the then Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)which had been the ruling party for more than once before and after the end of monarchy of Nepal.. On 12 February 1996, the erstwhile His Majesty’s Government of Nepal and the Government of India signed the Mahakali Treaty for integrated development of the Mahakali River Including Sarada Barrage, Tanakpur Barrage and Pancheshwar Project.
The very first Article 1 had two agreed-upon decisions that were hailed by overwhelming majority of people in Nepal. One, ‘Nepal shall have the right to a supply of 28.35 m3/s (1000 cusecs) of water from the Sarada Barrage in the wet season (i.e. from 15th May to 15th October) and 4.25 m3/s (150 cusecs) in the dry season (i.e. from 16th October to 14th May)’. Two, ‘India shall maintain a flow of not less than 10 m3/s (350 cusecs) downstream of the Sarada Barrage in the Mahakali River to maintain and preserve the river eco-system.’.. .
Deuba has obviously a ‘long shopping list’ with him. How much of this will be clinched is being awaited. Dr Nishchal N Pandey, director of Kathmandu-based think-tank Center for South Asian Studies and formerly executive director, Institute of Foreign Affairs under the Nepal’s ministry of foreign affair states realistically in an interview to Kathmandu’s English daily My Republica, “We also generally raise the people’s expectations prior to the visit. When the visit falls short, there is no dearth of those that criticise and state that the visit was not a success. Besides, this is an election year here in Nepal. Local polls are due in a month’s time. Nepal needs to stress the expeditious implementation of bilateral projects and reinvigorate the already existing bilateral mechanisms across diverse spheres rather than forming new committees and groups”
The Nepali premier will in all probability raise the disputatious Kalapani issue. It all started after India had opened the Darchula-Lipulekh pass link road on 8 May, 2020 cutting across the disputed Kalapani area, claimed to be in the interests of the Indian pilgrims to Kailash Mansarovar. The tiff between two governments began when India published a revised political map in November 2019, showing the newly created Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh, showing Kalapani as part of Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand. Nepal protested forthwith laying territorial claim over the river which is located in the easternmost corner of Pithoragarh. It shares a border with the Tibet Autonomous Region of China on the north and Nepal in the east and south.
The region under controversy is situated between Limpiyadhura-Lipulekh, and Kalapani trijunction between Nepal-India and China (Tibet), located at an altitude of 3600m on the banks of the river Kali. Even the incorrigible optimists do not expect an amicable settlement of the issue during the ensuing visit of Nepal’s PM. The Kalapani area has been under the control of the Indo-Tibetan Police and nearby areas since the Indo-China war of 1962.
Kathmandu refers to the Treaty of Sugauli of 1816 where the then British colonial rulers recognised the right of Nepal’s to the region that fell to the east of the Kali river. The Nepali stand is that the river originates in Nepal, precisely in the mountains near Limpiyadhura. Nepal argues that the landmass in the high mountains, falling to the east of the entire stretch right from Limpiyadhura.
Nonetheless, Deuba and top bureaucrats in Kathmandu are thankful to India for helping the land-locked neighbour with vaccines and repatriation of stranded Nepalis. Nepal is looking up to Indian government to further help the Nepali tourism industry get beefed up with augmenting air connectivity to Varanasi and south India . Veteran Nepali diplomats think, the visit is an opportunity for Modi to mend the fences. China cashes in on a growing anti-India mentality. But there are many who look at China suspiciously for its propensity to dominate economically. (IPA Service)