Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba just completed a three-day official visit to India upon the invitation of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Since the visit was arranged in a short period, there were anxieties and speculations in Nepali media on its purpose, even though regular exchange of high-level visits has been an integral component of bilateral ties. The visit happened two days after the Chinese Foreign minister Wang Yi’s three-day trip to Kathmandu and one day after the BIMSTEC meeting.
It also took place on the backdrop of Nepali parliament’s ratification of the US-funded MCC compact, which was strongly resisted by the front organizations of left parties. Most interestingly, while both extra-regional powers—the US and China—have been competing for strategic space by offering special development packages to Nepal under the BRI and the MCC, India has adopted a more astute diplomacy.
The MCC compact perhaps was not a major concern for India given its broad strategic-level partnership with the US globally and the latter’s acknowledgment of India’s geographical advantage in the region. Moreover, as per their 13 January 2017 joint statement, India and the US share a commitment to promoting economic growth, development, regional cooperation and connectivity under the MCC.
As far as the BRI is concerned, India might have felt more comfortable after the formation of a new government in Kathmandu under Deuba. Prime Minister Deuba categorically urged the Chinese to develop projects under the BRI ‘only under grant and aid assistance or through investment’. Moreover, Chinese influence in Nepal has been waning since the Supreme Court’s scrapping of the Nepal Communist Party. China failed to prevent the MCC’s passage despite using all its diplomatic, soft power, and coercive tools, going to the extent of effectively blocking the two China-Nepal trading points since the onset of the MCC debate in Nepal.
Given the closeness and warmth in bilateral relations and their mutual dependency, this kind of high-level visit was overdue. It happened after a gap of four years and following wrangling over border issues since November 2019. There was a vacuum in political communications after Nepal’s issuance of a new political map in May 2020. Although some high-level official visits happened after the map’s ratification.
Another driving factor behind the visit could be the pressing need to support each other in tackling a looming energy crisis in the subcontinent due to the Ukrainian conflict. Although Nepal depends on India, both for electricity and fossil fuel, in the long term, India needs the support of Nepal to achieve its Paris and Glasgow commitments on climate change and to realize Prime Minister Modi’s vision of “One Sun One World One Grid”. Therefore, of the four agreements signed during PM Deuba’s visit, two were related to energy including one concerning Nepal’s joining of the India-led Global Solar Alliance. The other one was an exchange of agreement on the supply of petroleum products between the IOC and the NOC.
This visit stood out from other more recent high-level visits from Nepal, as it went beyond routine delegation-level meetings and signing of MoUs. The first attraction of the visit was PM Deuba’s trip to the BJP headquarters. This was the first time a Nepali prime minister officially visited the party office of the ruling Indian party. It suggests a deep level of relationship as well as political maturity of the Nepali Congress and the BJP, both of which strongly believe in multiparty democracy, democratic values, norms, and constitutionalism.
Moreover, despite the many similarities between the NC and the BJP, there was no party-to-party MoU, unlike between the then NCP and the Chinese Communist Party in September 2019. This again shows that each party respects the independent functioning of the other and avoids imposing its values. This visit also sent a message to other Nepali political parties that the NC could be the priority party of the BJP in Kathmandu.
Another important part of PM Deuba’s India visit was his Varanasi sojourn. Uttar Pradesh has a special relationship with Nepal given its geographical contiguity, cultural linkages, as well as its status as an educational hub for many Nepalis. Most importantly, it is the birth center of the democratic movement in Nepal. Most Hindu Nepalis believe that taking a holy dip in the Ganges in Varanasi could help them achieve salvation. The only Nepal study center in India is located at Banaras Hindu University.
The Varanasi visit again shows that India has upgraded high-level visits from Nepal to the level of those from major countries like Japan, the US, and China. High-level visits from these countries since 2014 were hosted in provincial cities like Varanasi, Ahmedabad, and Mamallapuram respectively. PM Deuba was received by UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and thousands of other city dwellers and cheering students standing by the roadside. This too was a first in Nepal-India relations.
Although PM Deuba stayed in India for under 72 hours, the visit was well received by people of both the countries. During their joint press briefing, both leaders acknowledged fruitful discussions on wide-ranging issues. They reviewed progress in implementation of Indian projects in Nepal and agreed to further deepen and facilitate trade, energy, investment, and connectivity ties. In another major achievement of the visit, India acknowledged Nepal as one of the main pillars of its ‘neighborhood first’ policy.