After months of tension and ambiguity New Delhi and Kathmandu's attempts to iron out their differences will only lead to stability in the region and blunt Chinese designs.
Indian Foreign secretary (FS) Harsh Vardhan Shringla's recent visit to Nepal is both timely and pertinent. Himself of Sikkimese origin, Shringla is not a stranger to Nepal, having served in the northern division of the ministry of external affairs as a director (he also oversaw affairs in Bhutan), and he speaks Nepali fluently.
A veteran in handling the nuts and bolts of the geo-political dynamics which encompasses states like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Myanmar, Shringla has an old Nepal association. His recent visit to Kathmandu last month, ahead of the tour undertaken by Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe, carried just the right import and gravitas in ensuring that the partially fractured bonds between New Delhi and Kathmandu were being reset.
Shringla's sessions with Nepal's prime minister K.P.S. Oli would go a long way in addressing the disagreements that seemed to block communication between the two states for a better part of this year. India, on its part, has displayed the enthusiasm to reinvigorate the bilateral bonds further and the centuries old alliance finds gratification across multiple platforms.
Perhaps the most sensitive issue that has formed a scab on previous agreements has been the border issue between India and Nepal. But there is nothing that good hardnosed diplomacy and mutual respect cannot solve. Both countries had agreed some years ago that issues related to the borders would be taken up at a foreign secretary level and in this Shringla found an able partner in his Nepalese counterpart Bharat Raj Paudyal. Bilateral mechanisms and confidence building measures would be ably applied by both sides to restore a sense of calm given that the Nepal parliament has already ratified its claim on a new border and it would require a lot of tact and goodwill for India to broach the topic while searching for a lasting solution.
India has always ensured that its actions speak louder than its words when it comes to proving its commitment to supporting Nepal. A glut of humanitarian projects and financially backed activities bear case in point.
Shringla's task therefore was made all the more delicate during his visit but he opened schools and handed over medical supplies to enable Kathmandu battle the pandemic with the promise that more was to come when the Covid-19 vaccine was ready to be put to use.
The Indian foreign secretary had to steer past four sensitive pitstops during his visit namely, respecting Nepali feelings; getting a grip on the internal political dynamics at Kathmandu, where PM Oli enjoys control over the state institutions but is facing the threat of a rebellion within his own party; respecting Nepal's right to build ties with China, while ensuring that he spells out India's priorities in this context and finally spell out India's support for the principle of inclusion among Nepal's political elite and the marginalized social groups in the country.
India and Nepal have been busy repairing their recently strained ties. Shringla's visit was the third in as many weeks by an Indian official. He was preceded by 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, which is part of an age-old tradition that both countries follow.
New Delhi has now made it amply clear in various ways that it supports the idea of a federal, democratic, republican, and secular Nepal and the engagement between the two nations will need to be more vigorous in order to counter the threat posed by Beijing. Commitments at the bureaucrat and senior minister level need to be more frequent following on the path created by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi who has visited Nepal four times since he took office in 2016. Oli himself has flown to New Delhi at least seven times. Nepal has now made it amply clear that it wishes to follow the twin path of building bonds between India and China which is why there is room for intensive cooperation between the age-old neighbours in order to ensure that no decay sets in due to ignorance and lethargy which could pose complications in the region specially for India.
The news that Nepal's foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali will be visiting India this month for meetings with Indian foreign minister Dr. S Jaishankar, though official dates are yet to be announced, seems to indicate that bilateral ties would receive a boost. Issues like trade, transit, water resources will be on the table including the firming up of a bilateral transit treaty and understanding on railway services. Nepal is looking for dispensations for its agricultural products and trans-shipment of goods shipped from third countries via India.
It is time for both India and Nepal to grab the low hanging fruit while smoothening the frayed edges of their relationship. Any tension between India and China would only end up affecting Nepal which now seems to have been caught in the middle given that they do not have the diplomatic finesse to wriggle out of a problem which has largely been off their own making.