Nepal’s Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali concluded the first high-level visit to New Delhi from the Himalayan kingdom in over a year on a mixed note. The Indian side was unwilling to touch the boundary issue or the hotter political potato of revising the 1950 Friendship Treaty. Gyawali was to underline the criticality of both issues during his public engagements in the national capital. But India was more than prepared to make steady investments and gradually recalibrate the relationship rather than effect a major redesign. South Block’s approach is understandable at a time when Nepal PM KP Oli’s recommendation to dissolve the House is yet to undergo judicial scrutiny.
Oli, however, took the initiative to thaw the chill in bilateral ties when he called up PM Narendra Modi last August. Since then, India dispatched the RAW and Army chiefs and the Foreign Secretary to dissipate the bad blood that had accumulated ever since a new Indian political map was fiercely disputed by Nepal; in retaliation, the neighbour had come up with its own map. Unfortunately, security has become the principal load-bearing pillar of the bilateral relationship due to India’s border conflict with China and Beijing’s suspicions regarding stepped-up US activism in South Asia. The Himalayas, Nepal included, have become a contested terrain due to their important interstitial location between two nations that have decided to compete against one another. This is no longer the Nepal where India was the prime mediator in its moments of crises in 1951, 1990 and 2005.
The structural irritants have arguably increased. But the Chinese envoy’s exertions in Kathmandu to broker peace among warring Communist factions can never overshadow the intertwining of the politics and culture of India and Nepal. India’s proposals during the just-concluded Joint Commission meetings to construct a rail line to Kathmandu and a second oil pipeline will diminish the salience of competing Chinese proposals. Yet, India under PM Modi does not have an answer to Nepal’s sensing of hardening geostrategic circumstances after the Galwan Valley clash, and trying to carve out greater autonomy in its foreign relations. India must be prepared to vie with China on this front.