| July 19, 2019

Mend-fence mission

Foreign Minister’s India visit
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs Kamal Thapa left for a three-day official visit to India on Friday. This visit is being seen meaningfully: it is the first time a top government official is visiting the southern neighbor after the cancellation of India visit of President Bidya Devi Bhandari and the abrupt recall of Nepal’s ambassador to India, Deep Kumar Upadhayay, both in May. During his stay in New Delhi, Thapa will attend the convocation ceremony of the South Asian University but more significantly he will hold a one-on-one with his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj. There has been a lot of bad blood between Kathmandu and New Delhi in recent times, most notably during the four and half months of the Indian blockade. India has since been trying to raise the issue of ‘discriminatory’ provisions of the new Nepali constitution at various international forums, which has further added to the mistrust. India must desist from such undiplomatic efforts if it wants to restore its image as a trusted friend of Nepal. It does not behoove a rising global power like India to unnecessarily rake up a purely internal issue of one of its small neighbors at various bilateral and multilateral forums, for it hints of a deep sense of insecurity in the Indian establishment.

So if India wants its relations with Nepal to return to an even keel, it must not engage in such counterproductive pressure tactics. On Nepal’s part, we hope Foreign Minister Thapa can assure the Indian establishment that the government of Nepal is also keen on mending fences with India. As a proof, the cancelled visit of President Bhandari can be rescheduled. The vacancy at Nepali embassy in New Delhi must also be filled without any further ado. But that is not enough. Whether we like it or not, India is concerned about the fate of the Madheshis in the new constitution. So there must also be a credible assurance from the Nepali side that outstanding constitutional issues will be settled on the basis of dialogue with the disgruntled forces. But such an assurance will sound credible only if there is a meaningful effort from the government to actually engage the Madheshi parties—for instance by having either Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli or Maoist supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal lead the government talks team, something the Madheshi parties have been demanding.

Thapa’s visit is meaningful also because it takes place on the eve of the expiry of the Nepal-India Treaty of Trade on October 27th. Although the treaty is automatically renewed every seven years, it can also be amended with the consent of the two parties. And it needs some amendments. For instance, according to the treaty, Nepali perfume has been inexplicably placed on the sensitive list, alongside tobacco and alcohol products. Also, the treaty forbids Nepal from imposing duties on Indian agro products. Since Indian agriculture is heavily subsidized, this puts Nepali farmers at a disadvantage. Many such trade-related issues will have to be sorted out in the next four months before October 27th. But such changes will be possible only if there is an atmosphere of trust between the two sides. We hope that both the governments realize the gravity of the matter. A long period of mistrust between two countries with such extensive ties, including an open border, is not in the interest of either country.


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