After hitting historic lows in 2020, relations between India and Nepal are on the rise again.
After a tumultuous 2020 when the traditionally rock-solid Indo-Nepal ties hit new lows, the sixth meeting of the India-Nepal joint commission was held on January 15 in New Delhi that indicated that bilateral ties were on the mend. The meeting was co-chaired by India’s external affairs minister S Jaishankar and Nepal’s minister of foreign affairs Pradeep Kumar Gyawali who lead a delegation on a three-day visit to India.
Relations between the two countries had soured in the first week of May 2020 when India’s defence minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated a road link via Lipulekh to Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet in China. The issue had been festering ever since November of 2019 when India published a map that said Kalapani was part of its territory. Nepal had responded to the inauguration of the road with its own map that depicts Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura as its territories. Unanimously endorsed by Nepal’s upper house of parliament it took India by surprise. While relations got strained after Nepal alleged India of an undeclared blockade in 2015, for the first time ever, the two countries that generally have a porous and free-flowing border, had a territorial dispute on their hands.
De-escalation of tensions
The first signs of a thaw in relations came after an 11 minute telephone conversation between the heads of the two countries–India’s Narendra Modi and Nepal’s KP Sharma Oli in August. There has been a significant de-escalation of tensions from both sides and increased engagement between the two nations since then. In November three high ranking officials from India made separate trips to Nepal–foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Research and Analysis Wing chief Samant Kumar Goyal and army chief MM Naravane who was bestowed the rank of honorary general of the Nepal Army.
The joint commission meeting, which was the first ministerial-level deliberations since May 2020, builds on that. Though the contentious issue of the border dispute was not raised, several areas of cooperation were discussed including in the areas of connectivity, economy and trade, power, oil and gas, water resources, political and security issues, border management, development partnership, tourism, culture, education and capacity building.
Nepal’s internal politics is in a state of flux right now with an undercurrent of a tug of war between India and China. Mounting criticism from all sides including from within his own party NCP, Nepal’s Prime Minister Oli has called for fresh elections in April and May, more than a year ahead of schedule. While India has adopted a hands-off strategy choosing to not interfere at all in the country’s internal politics, China has played an active role that included sending a high-level delegation of the Chinese Communist Party to try and resolve the rift, unsuccessfully. India’s stance has also helped smoothen the rough edges that had formed in recent times.
“We never accept interference in our domestic politics. We are able to settle our own problems without help from outside. As a close neighbour, there may be some concerns or questions but we never accept interference,” Gyawali said at a briefing before departing from India.
To cement ties further, India is also making use of vaccine diplomacy. The irony of the virus coming from the other side of the great wall and the cure for it from the opposite side, is not lost on Nepal. On his return to Kathmandu, Gyawali expressed satisfaction with his trip to Delhi and added that he had received assurance that India would treat Nepal as a priority once the supply of the vaccine begins to other countries. Barely four days later, India gifted one million Covishield vaccines to Nepal, under the “Vaccine Maitri” initiative. This was part of India’s plans to provide upto 10 million doses of both Covishield and Covaxin, the vaccine made by Bharat Biotech to friendly countries. As a trustworthy all-weather ally, India had kept its promise.
“I thank Prime Minister @narendramodi as well as the Government and people of India for the generous grant of one million doses of COVID vaccine to Nepal at this critical time when India is rolling out vaccination for its own people,” Nepal PM Oli wrote in a tweet.
From being accused of blocking medical supplies in 2015, to being thanked for speedy delivery of vaccines in 2021, India has turned the corner with Nepal.