Nepal-India relations hit an all-time low over a map row in 2019. Three years later, the two countries’ ties seem to be on the mend. Of late, India’s engagement with Nepal has been largely focused on development, economic and connectivity and it has uncharacteristically maintained a low-key approach. In this connection, Kamal Dev Bhattarai of ApEx talks to Mahendra P. Lama, an expert on India’s neighborhood policy and a member of the Indian half of the Nepal-India Eminent Persons Group (EPG).
How would you evaluate the current state of Nepal-India relations?
After a few years of stalemate, Nepal-India ties are looking up again. It had to at some point because the two countries have strong people-to-people relations. No matter what happens between Kathmandu and New Delhi at the political level, Nepali and Indian people living in border areas will continue to maintain their age-old relations.
Do you think Nepal-India connectivity is improving?
Connectivity remains one of India’s priorities, not just with Nepal but also with all its neighbors and beyond. For instance, there is India’s India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, which will be extended to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. So, India clearly prioritizes infrastructure.
As Nepal is already practicing federalism, the federal units should assert themselves on connectivity. It should not be Kathmandu’s issue alone. Province 1, for example, should think about how it wants to link up with Bangladesh. The provincial government should talk with the government of India about opening a corridor. Nepal’s provincial governments should also take the initiative to find out what India thinks about the connectivity projects.
There was an enduring perception that India interfered in Nepal’s internal politics. But India of late seems to have changed its approach. Do you agree?
I think more than India, it is Nepal that should change. If there is strong Nepal with strong leadership, India and its leaders will not interfere in Nepal’s affairs. Just look at India’s relations with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Where is the scope of interference? I think this issue can be resolved with strong Nepali leadership, institutions and policies. Every powerful country likes to manage and control a weak country. This is not just the case between India and Nepal. It is happening with China and its neighbors as well.
The report of the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) that you helped draft has not been submitted to the respective governments. Why?
I do not know why the report’s submission has been delayed. Apparently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not accepted it. And unless he does, the hands of Nepal’s prime minister are tied as well. The report offers new direction and vision for Nepal-India relations. If the governments of the two countries were to study it, they would see its benefits. It encompasses many issues on the future of Nepal-India relations.
How do you see China’s growing influence in South Asia including in Nepal?
China is not a new player in South Asia. It has been competing against India for regional ascendance since the 1970s. In that decade, China built many highways in Nepal as well. But development projects are nothing new. What is new, however, is China capturing the state institutions of South Asian countries. To a large extent, China is influencing the people who manage these institutions. Now people suddenly understand what is happening. Just look at Sri Lanka. The country’s parties and institutions came under Beijing’s sway and the consequences are there for everyone to see.