In the first week of October, a Nepali Congress team led by former foreign minister Prakash Sharan Mahat visited New Delhi at the invitation of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Udaya Shumsher Rana and Ajaya Kumar Chaurasiya were the other two team members.
For public consumption, the visit was said to be a part of an ongoing party-to-party exchange between the NC and the BJP. But according to sources, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba had dispatched the trio to explain to the Indian establishment his plan to contest elections for a second term as party president.
The three leaders visiting India are close confidants of PM Deuba. The visiting team didn’t have anyone from the rival factions of the Nepali Congress. Deuba did not discuss with other leaders the purpose of the visit either.
According to Chaurasiya, the talks with Indian leaders and officials focused on two broad areas: strengthening government-to-government ties, and increasing interactions/exchanges between the NC and the BJP. “We conveyed PM Deuba’s message to the Indian leaders that he wants to maintain good rapport with the Indian government and the BJP,” Chaurasiya told ApEx. “The Indian side also conveyed its message that the government led by Narendra Modi wants to build a good relationship with the government as well as PM Deuba, who is also the party president.”
A senior Congress leader in frequent touch with the Indian establishment says NC leaders considered close to India have deserted the Deuba camp and this has added to his worries ahead of the party elections. “PM Deuba wants to secure India’s support for his candidacy, but this time India has remained mum and not supported any specific leader,” says the leader requesting anonymity. He says this time India is unlikely to throw its weight behind any candidate. It is also not clear whether the Indian bureaucracy and the BJP are on the same page on how to approach the NC’s convention and a possible change in leadership.
Bimalendra Nidhi, a long-time confidant of Deuba, has announced plans to contest the party presidency. Shekhar Koirala, who maintains good rapport with the Indian leadership, is also in the fray. This creates additional challenges for Deuba.
NC leaders say neither internal party dynamics nor the external environment is in Deuba’s favor this time, and he is desperate to have New Delhi’s support. During their visit, the NC team met senior BJP leaders, Minister for External Affairs S Jaishankar, and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Aditya Nath. According to the Congress leader, the issue of NC general convention also figured during these meetings.
In the third week of August, BJP foreign affairs department chief Vijay Chauthaiwale had visited Kathmandu at Mahat’s invitation. He met PM Deuba and other senior leaders. Ever since the formation of the Deuba government, a team of NC leaders has been relentlessly working to mend ties with New Delhi through engagements with the bureaucracy as well as members of the ruling BJP.
Not only those close to Deuba, others such as Bimalendra Nidhi, Shashank Koirala, Shekhar Koirala, and Prakash Man Singh have also tossed their hats in the ring in the race for party presidency.
This week Shashank Koirala visited Bombay and New Delhi. Koirala met some BJP leaders to seek their advice and support for his bid. “Though senior leader Ram Chandra Poudel has announced his candidacy for the presidency, it is likely to boil down to a Deuba vs Koirala [Shekhar or Shashank] fight,” says another Congress leader, also requesting anonymity.
Arun Subedi, a political and foreign policy expert, says the traditional relationship between the two countries means the Indian factor is always influential inside the NC, especially during the general convention. Whatever NC leaders may say for public consumption, all leadership aspirants secretly seek India’s support, Subdei adds, PM Deuba being no exception.
Deuba is equally worried about India’s reluctance to roll out the red carpet for him in New Delhi. In the past, India used to invite the Nepali PM as soon as he took charge. But this time, India is yet to send a formal invite. The delay in the visit has been partially attributed to NC’s internal political mess.
This time, Deuba’s first foreign visit is to Scotland to take part in COP26, where he is expected to meet his Indian counterpart Modi on the sidelines of the conference. Deuba is also likely to pay an official visit to India after returning from Glasgow.
Though the meetings of bilateral mechanisms between the two countries are taking place regularly and some connectivity projects are making progress, Deuba is not confident that New Delhi is fully backing his government.
In June this year, in a veiled reference to India, five former prime ministers including Deuba had cautioned against external influence in the country’s internal affairs. Party leaders say it was Deuba’s mistake to join forces with four prime ministers to issue the statement, which irked India. New Delhi is reportedly unhappy with Deuba over some issues.
Analyst Subedi’s understanding is that an environment of trust is yet to be established between the Deuba-led government and India. “Bureaucratic-level engagements don’t produce sustainable relations. Deuba doesn’t have any foreign affairs advisors to take matters beyond the bureaucracy,” Subedi says. “The foreign ministers have been unable to mend and maintain ties with India. This failure to create an environment of trust is good neither for Nepal nor India.”
In his recent book Political Changes in Nepal and Bhutan (Emerging Trends in Foreign Policy in Post 2008 Period), Nihar R Nayak, a research fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, observes: “Even after 70 years of diplomatic history, regime security has remained a key determinant of Nepal’s foreign policy. The new governments in Kathmandu give priority to win the goodwill of neighboring countries, especially India.”