Kathmandu: Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli, who had until recently faced pressure from party leaders to quit as prime minister and party chairman, seems to have managed intra-party rifts for the time being, thus securing his position for the remaining two and half years of the government’s five-year term.
An intra-party taskforce has come up with a suggestion that Oli focuses on government matters and party chairperson, Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda, holds executive rights in party affairs.
A statement released by Prachanda last week has indicated that Oli will remain as prime minister for the full five-year term. As a solution to the intra-party rift, Oli’s role in party affairs will be curtailed, federal and provincial cabinets may be reshuffled to accommodate leaders from rival camps and the party will scrutinise the functioning of the government more.
Now that disagreements within the party are done with, Oli’s next priority is to improve ties with India. On August 15, Oli held a phone conversation with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to greet the latter on the occasion of India’s 74th Independence Day. The conversation initiated by Oli ended the period of total communication breakdown that had erupted after boundary disputes between the two countries.
India’s Independence Day offered a moment to be seized, and dialogue between the two countries resumed. Both leaders share a good rapport. Two days after the talks at prime ministerial level, Nepal and India held a mandated meeting of oversight mechanism, to review development projects funded by India.
The mechanism was formed four years ago to identify the bottlenecks in development projects and settle them fast.
Nepal has also extended the deadline for Small Development Projects (SDPs) with investment from the Indian Embassy by three years. This had been pending since Nepal entered its federal setup. The SDPs are regarded as one of India’s most successful development projects in the neighbourhood and began in Nepal in 2003.
India has also provided 10 ventilators to the Nepal Army.
These developments come as a huge sigh of relief for those who want to see cordial relationships between the two countries. Both sides seem visibly keen to normalise bilateral relations.
Why is Oli keen to repair relations with India?
First, opposition parties have started raising the pitch on how Oli has been failing to talk with India on border issues.
An intra-party panel formed to resolve internal disputes has reportedly suggested that Prime Minister Oli talk with India immediately on border isssues. All opposition parties including Madhes-based parties had notably supported the constitution amendment on the map that had been initiated by government.
Now, they are of the view that Oli should demonstrate his diplomatic skills to settle disputes with India.
Opposition parties are also blaming him for damaging ties with India with his provocative statements. Even foreign policy observers have been vocal with their belief that Oli has threatened people-to-people relations between the two countries. Even a section of leaders of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) have expressed disappointment with some of Oli’s statements.
This seems to have had an effect on Oli.
Second, Oli is quite aware that the border issue is time consuming to resolve and that it should not affect overall bilateral relations. There are several issues between two countries which demand regular and constant touch between the two, like the COVID-19 crisis for one.
Nepal is heavily dependent on India for the supply of day-to-day essentials.
Finally, along with criticism over how he handled the COVID-19 crisis, Oli has faced flak for the manner of his dealings with major powers like India, China and United States.
Due to the intra-party rift, the future of America’s US $ 500 million grant to Nepal under the US Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) is uncertain. As per the agreement between two countries, the agreement should have come into effect from June but that deadline was missed and no fresh decision has been made. To get this grant endorsed by the parliament, Oli will have to settle the dispute within his party, although opposition parties are ready to support the government in this matter.
Though Oli is known to lean towards China, there has not been much progress when it comes to selection of projects under China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
It is not like India-Nepal ties were particularly cordial even before the map issue. Oli is perceived as having failed to convince India to receive the report of the Eminent Person’s Group (EPG) report which was finalised in 2018. India in 2018, refused to receive the EPG report citing the busy schedule of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This is still pending. Oli is thus keen to get his foreign policies on track.
India is also likely to reciprocate to Oli’s call for resumption of dialogue between two countries. China’s growing presence and engagement with South Asian countries even in the time of the COVID-19 crisis is likely to push India towards its ‘neighbourhood first’ policy.
In his Independence Day speech, Modi had said, “Neighbour is not just one with whom there is sharing of borders but also one with whom our heart stays connected.”
Recently, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited Bangladesh amid the COVID-19 crisis and he is likely to visit other South Asian countries as well. Since assuming office, Shringla has not visited Nepal. India also cannot afford to ignore Nepal as there are several development projects funded by India which need to be expedited. Modi himself is facing criticism within India that his neighbourhood first policy has not yielded the desired result.
In conclusion, there is no alternative to both Nepal and India other than to settle issues related to trade, transit, water resources, floods, development projects, the submission of the EPG report and the border. These problems might prove difficult to tackle in the future.
Kamal Dev Bhattarai is a Kathmandu-based journalist.