Nepalese PM Sher Bahadur Deuba is on his way to visit India. He comes at a time when the Himalayan region is wracked with aggressive gesturing involving India and China, extended in some measure to Bhutan.
Nepal has kept studiously aloof from the sharp exchanges between its neighbours but with the swirling debate on Doklam showing no sign of early closure the visiting leader will need to steer a careful course in his talks in New Delhi. Even without such issues involving third parties there is plenty for Deuba to handle when he comes to New Delhi.
Relations between India and Nepal have a unique intimacy that can both sustain close friendship and also lead to great prickliness in mutual exchanges; small matters can have exaggerated consequences.
Given the vast imbalance in size, Nepal is prone to feeling slighted when India seems to be showing insufficient sensitivity to its requirements, and as there is no end to the coming and going and the daily contact between the two, every now and then some issue crops up to disturb the normal tenor of their relationship.
It is important therefore that care should be taken to ensure prudent border management, all the more so because it is an open border, almost unique in this day and age, that underpins the relationship.
Deuba is a practised statesman who has steered his country in many capacities over the last several decades, so there is considerable expectation that his visit will yield important results. Both sides are well aware of the great importance of their relationship and both have done what they can in recent months to add a new dimension to their long-established ties, with Prime Minister Modi especially solicitous in promoting the cultural intimacy that gives special flavour to the connection between the two countries.
Nevertheless, there are some recent scars that need to be removed, none more prominent than what is regarded in Nepal as a blockade by India that did great harm to that land-locked country. Revival of the traditional closeness when each side could always count on receiving succour and assistance from the other would be a welcome result of the Deuba visit.
Beyond the necessary repair work, there is a substantial menu of major development schemes that await attention, with the potential of transforming the economic prospects of Nepal and the contiguous parts of India.
The two countries have been labouring for some half-a-century to bring to implementation a major hydroelectric project on the Mahakali, a border river, which was finally agreed as long ago as 1996 but still awaits final conclusion.
There is a treaty that commits them to the project but they have as yet been unable to agree on a Detailed Project Report (DPR) that would guide the work. This is a real pity because the Mahakali agreement represents a breakthrough, establishing mutuality of interest between the two parties that transcends their occasional doubts, including minor differences relating to the border alignment in the project area.
Unfortunately the spirit of accommodation that guided the framing of the Treaty was not carried over into the making of the DPR, but Mahakali remains perhaps the most promising joint enterprise and it would be an important step in bringing the two countries into closer alignment with each other.
Water is the big resource that can take India and Nepal, and their entire region, into a new era. Responding to changed circumstances, Nepal has been enterprising in its search for new economic opportunity as may be seen in its readiness to permit expanded tourism in its matchless mountains and accept the support of numerous external agencies in its development process ~ this from a country that until well into the 20th century was famously inaccessible to outsiders.
Today, as the experience of Mahakali shows, Nepal is open to joint projects with its neighbours, especially India, and it has now acquired the capacity to make its own judgment about these projects, which makes it more questioning of advice it may receive from outside. That is only as it should be, but it has also slowed down the development process, for the all important resource of water has remained largely undeveloped.
Elsewhere in the Himalayas, neighbouring Bhutan has been able to make judicious use of this same natural resource, with the result that it now has a per capita income far in excess of Nepal’s, which was once ahead in the development process, and has also outstripped India with its more varied and much more extensive resources.
Meanwhile, China has begun to cast a longer shadow in the Himalayas. Its recent foray into the Doklam area follows a series of efforts over many years to establish a footing in Nepal and tie that country more firmly to its northern neighbour.
With that has come the prospect of China providing an alternative opening to the world to supplement, perhaps rival, the established access through India. Such developments have important strategic implications that will be hard to ignore when Deuba visits India, and which underline the abiding need to preserve and further strengthen the unique ties between India and Nepal.
Reports from Kathmandu suggest that Deuba may raise the matter of Lipu Lekh during his visit, which is the pass through the high mountains leading on to the pilgrimage sites of Kailash and Mansarovar.
Access to the pilgrimage places is a matter of great importance for the large numbers of Indian pilgrims who undertake the journey every year, and recently the Chinese authorities have discouraged pilgrimage along the alternative route through Nathu La pass, so this may be a live issue for the two leaders to discuss.
There will be a good deal more on the table, and the Deuba visit can be a very important one. If it goes well, it can unlock the way to major bilateral projects like the Mahakali, for which much of the ground work has already been done and what is needed now is a demonstration of political will to take matters forward.
This is something that needs to be undertaken in equal measure by both parties, with full regard for the sensitivities on both sides.
For India it is important that the top-level talks during the visit should strengthen the historic strategic closeness of the two countries. The opening up of South Asia, and of the Asian region as a whole, means that more players have entered the scene and seek an enhanced role for themselves.
India will need to be supportive of Nepal’s aspirations while ensuring maintenance of the close mutual understanding that must lie at the core of the bilateral relationship.
(The writer is India’s former Foreign Secretary)