How has the issue of Kalapani affected Nepal-India relations?
It has had a huge impact. Available bilateral mechanisms are the only way to settle border disputes. There really is no other way. Bilateral talks are the only means. There cannot be third-party mediation, nor have other countries that kind of leverage. Despite some ups and downs, Nepal-India relations have always been cordial. Now, Kalapani is undoubtedly a major agenda. Nepal’s domestic forces raked up the issue to serve their interests instead of opting for an appropriate diplomatic solution. Nor is this a new issue. In my understanding, both our government and India are making little effort to resolve it. If it is an issue, India should also seek a solution at the earliest. Similarly, our Ministry of Foreign Affairs is not trying enough. There are several issues between the two countries and we have various instruments as well. Issues could be resolved if only there were regular meetings of existing mechanisms.
Aren’t border issues by their very nature hard to resolve?
There are some mechanisms exclusively dedicated to border issues. For example, there is a foreign-secretary level meeting but seldom has this been held. If this meeting cannot take place, we can give such rights to our ambassador in New Delhi. He can hold regular meetings with Indian officials unless it is settled. But Nepal seems to be seeking a solution that is not diplomatic. India prefers diplomatic channels. It is a responsibility of both the countries to create the right atmosphere for talks. The environment here gives the impression that we are preparing for war. Effigies have been burnt, and there are protests in front of the Indian Embassy. All political parties and even the government is involved. But what will we get from the street? Our only option is activating bilateral mechanisms. If some issues cannot be settled at the diplomatic level, we can take them to the top political level. Even for this, we first need to build confidence. Now there is no confidence.
You say this is not a new issue. But protests erupted only after India came up with a new political map.
We are saying that it is a new map but it is not. India comes up with a new map every time it restructures its internal boundaries. Now they have imposed central rule in Jammu and Kashmir and come out with a new political map. In 1995-97, this issue was prominently raised in Nepal. In subsequent years, it was not a priority of our political parties. Now it has resurfaced again. Why was this issue not resolved in the past? It suggests a mishandling of our foreign policy.
In your view, how does India view recent developments in Nepal?
India has officially said that it is ready for talks on Kalpani. Two former Indian ambassadors to Nepal, Shyam Sharan and Ranjit Rae, say Nepal was never serious on this issue. Other intellectuals are saying the same. India has proposed diplomatic channels to resolve Kalapani. Nepal has not said that it cannot be resolved through such channels. If Nepal says so, it could be moved to political level. Two of our former foreign secretaries have said that Kalapani cannot be resolved at the diplomatic level. Yet former Indian ambassadors are saying that as India has resolved border disputes with Bangladesh, issues with Nepal can also be resolved. India believes the situation in Nepal should be normal for meaningful talks. Street protests and negotiation cannot go hand in hand.
There also seems to be a belief in some quarters of India that other external elements are involved in the anti-India protests in Nepal.
Since 1950 Nepali political parties have always used Nepal-India bilateral relations to serve their vested interests. They negotiated with India with the same intent. There is competition among political parties to become nationalists. Earlier, PM Oli used this border issue for political marketing, now Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba is resorting to the same tactic. Your nationalism is tested based on the negotiations you conduct when you are in power. How best did you serve national interest? The prime ministers of the two countries used to talk over the phone on day to day issues but now they have not spoken. At the least, Nepal government should have appealed to people not to protest in the street, assuring them that Kalapani would be resolved through diplomatic channels.
Are you suggesting that Oli government is using the nationalist card to cover up its domestic failures?
The federal government’s performance has been dismal in the nearly two years since its formation. The PM’s image is sinking and he knows it. He is not capable of defending himself in parliament. Corruption is rife. When the government feels a sense of crisis, nationalism resurfaces. This is not a first time. In 2015, after the promulgation of new constitution, our leaders talked with India about constitution amendment but they did not talk with Madhes-based parties.
Do you think there will come a time when India says enough is enough about the anti-India protests in Nepal?
I don’t think Indians take the ongoing protests seriously. I have not heard of serious discussions in India about them. The Indian establishment clearly understands our capacity. They are of the view that such protests frequently happen in Nepal. I see a diplomatic failure on our side. We decided to send Madhav Kumar Nepal as a special envoy to India. Actually, he cannot resolve the problems, and which level was he to engage? Such anti-Indian protests would impact other negotiations on trade and transit. We may face difficulties in those areas. For example, take the onion crisis. This is not the first time India has faced an onion crisis. In the past, India used to send certain amount of onions even while it faced a shortage but this time they completed stopped delivery.
You fault our foreign ministry. But it has already dispatched a letter to New Delhi asking for high-level talks. It is India that has not responded.
Nepal is yet to clearly mention that it wants a foreign secretary-level meeting. In the meeting of Joint Commission held in September, the two countries had agreed on a foreign secretary-level meeting on border issues in January 2020 in Dehradun. There are many informal channels between Nepal and India which need to be utilized before proposing a formal meeting. First, Nepal will have to say that it wants dialogue at the political level. On our part, preparation is lacking. We have not updated our maps for over 40 years. We are in a state of confusion.
What is your take on India’s refusal to accept the final report of the joint Nepal-India Eminent Persons Group (EPG)?
Let me say few things on the EPG. First, it was formed in 2016 when bilateral relations were at a low. Second, see the background of the EPG members. They all were giving statements against India before the EPG was formed. How could they have been expected to normalize relations? Third, Madhes-based parties spoke against the EPG in the parliament, rejecting the final report. It means the report is contested within Nepal. We cannot say that reservation of Madhes-based parties is a domestic issue. India is closely watching the dissatisfaction inside the country.
More seriously, the Nepali side leaked important portions of the report. We also decided to submit the final report to the two prime ministers. This is a report prepared by experts and there is no need to submit it to the prime ministers. Similarly, there was wrong understanding about the report. Nepal government spokesperson publicly said that India should receive and implement the report. He missed the point that the report is not mandatory.
But is it not dishonest on India’s part to reject the EPG report formed through consensus between two countries?
You are correct. I am not satisfied with Indian position of not receiving this report. India should do so. Unfortunately, we also created a hostile environment here. Except Bhek Bahadur Thapa, other EPG members spoke about the report before it was submitted and they projected it as a cure-all for bilateral ills. The EPG report should not be projected as bible.
In a separate context, how does India view growing Chinese influence in Nepal?
It is natural for foreign powers to seek their space. Chinese influence in Nepal has increased in all areas including politics and government. In the past, such space was exclusively reserved for India and the US. There is no doubt that there is a huge Chinese influence in ruling parties. India is obviously concerned. But they have not taken any policy measures. China’s aggressive diplomacy in Kathmandu, particularly in domestic politics, is a major concern for India. If India becomes active in East Asian countries like Vietnam, Philippines, it is a matter of concerns for China as well. China’s influence in domestic politics particularly in unification of two communist parties and government formation are matters of grave concerns for India as well as for us in Nepal.
How do you see the growing competition between US, India and China play out in Nepal?
Our political and diplomatic leadership do not have the capacity to manage the growing competition among three powers. We agree to everything with everyone. We may face a difficult situation if this continues. We have to develop a capacity of managing growing interests. There is already a worrying conflict between the Indo-Pacific Strategy and the BRI.