Recently concluded Nepal-India Joint Commission meeting has made significant progress in terms of strengthening bilateral relations, implementing the projects announced in the past and revising the past agreements so that Nepal could have better trade and transit facilities as well the markets in India and elsewhere. India has agreed to resolve the inundation in Terai, accept the EPG Report, expedite the work at large infrastructure projects in Nepal and revise the trade and transit treaties. Nepal Foreign Affairs talked with Dr. Rajan Bhattarai, Foreign Affairs Advisor to Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli about the achievements that Nepal made in the meeting.
Indian Minister for External Affairs Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar recently visited Nepal to participate in the Nepal-India Joint Commission meeting. When he visited Nepal earlier, the country was ready to announce the constitution on which India had reservations but this time, we have a government formed on the strength of the same constitution. Given Jaishankar’s role for and against, can you tell us how an individual can influence the bilateral relations?
Since Nepal and India hare close neighbours there are ups and down in our relationship. Sometimes the relations has reached newer heights while there were situations when it reached to the lowest ebb.
Nepal-India Joint Commission meeting is the highest bilateral mechanisms of the two countries. Formed in 1897, the commission could assemble only three times so far in1988, 2014 and 2016. The last meeting was revived during the premiership of PM Oli himself and the then Minister for Foreign Affairs Mahendra Bahadur Pandey had taken initiatives for it.
Given the nature of historical, cultural and political relations between the two countries, the bilateral relations should be handled at the political level. It is not sufficient to practice it by just from one or two government institutions. Meeting of the commissions should be organised on a regular basis in order to review, discuss and revise the multidimensional partnership between the two. Its inactivity has resulted in activation of other unnecessary forces which had a sort of negative impact on the bilateral relations.
The meeting has initiated positive discussions on various pertinent issues from economic, trade, security, border, inundation, aviation and transit to political level. Some of the issues have been resolved during the meeting while the two countries agreed to address other issues at the earliest.
As far as the role of Jaishankar in defining the bilateral relationship is considered, I would say an individual’s role is defined by his position in his country. Jaishankar has just acted as per his professional responsibilities and country’s policy. We need to understand that. Every diplomat or envoy performs as per the country’s policy on their national interests. Earlier, he had come as per the envoy of the government while now he has come in the capacity of the foreign affairs minister to participate in the bilateral mechanism.
Nepal-India are enjoying better political relations. Shall we hope that the two countries are ready to hold open discussion at high-level on various bilateral issues? There were also the cases in the past that the Indian bureaucracy obstructed the smooth processes even though it was agreed at the political level in case of trade and transit treaty.
We believe that the bilateral relations with any country should be handled at the political level. During the conflict period, India might have different perspective on Nepal due to its own security concerns. But we have activated multiple mechanisms and channels for dialogue and talks are intensified. Telephone conversations are happening when there is no possibility of physical meeting. Ministry-wise interactions and dialogues are also moving ahead as per requirement. We have given priority to the political conversations between the two neighbours. We are enjoying the environment of confidence.
When we have confidence on each other on a political level, it will guide all other activities and dialogues in a broader perspective. Both the countries have political stability, bold and powerful government which are set to develop the relations as per the public interest, changing contexts and globalisation. The commission meeting and Jaishankar’s views on bilateral relations and cooperation has solidified the bonds more. When there is political stability, there is policy stability as well. We re also set to resolve the issues that were long pending.
It has also been heard that there was one-to-one dialogue between Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and Jaishankar. But the contents of the meeting were not made public? Was there something serious?
There is a culture of expressing reactions based on our own convictions rather than understanding of the external environment. The one-on-one meeting is in practice for many centuries in the past. It was practiced by the developed countries before the World War II. Likewise, Nepal and India had practiced this model in the past as well. I wonder why people are making negative comments about it. It’s not the case that this thing is happened now or for the first time in the history of the two countries. There were one-on-one meetings between PM Oli and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi during Oli’s visit to India and Modi’s visit to Nepal in the recent past. Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping had one-on-one meeting as well. In addition to it, telephone conversations between the leaders of different countries has become a modern culture. Such meeting only discussed the issues and when it comes to implementation, other agencies and leaders are involved automatically.
In the past, we had culture of high-profile political leaders visiting the mission of foreign country in Kathmandu. It’s not the problem of the government but the respective leaders themselves. Jaishankar had special message from Indian PM which he conveyed to PM Oli. The message was to activate important bilateral mechanisms and enhance further economic cooperation. PM Oli wants to complete India-assisted projects in Nepal in time. He conveyed the same to Jaishankar during the one-on-one meeting.
There has been delay in India accepting the EPG report. Why?
The issue has been raised at various bilateral meetings. For the first time, the two countries have reviewed all the past agreements. EPG was an open platform to discuss the plethora of issues between the countries. It’s been a year since the EPG has prepared the report and there was a delay in accepting the report in the part of Indian government. The EPG had a very positive development by preparing a single combined report. It has included all the aspects of bilateral relations, past treaties and conventions. There were dialogues between Nepal and India at various levels and the latter had not said that it wouldn’t accept it. Jaishankar has also expressed positive views regarding it.
It’s also been said that India did not accepted Nepal’s constitution but working with the government formed as per the constitution.
The issue of accepting the constitution is not an issue anymore. We have made our constitution and we own it so every other friendly country should accept it. The same has been happened. It is useless to backtrack from the achievements made so far.
People also want to know your views on the annulment of the Article 370 of Indian constitution and making Kashmir a special territory by India.
I am not aware of any dialogues between the PM and Jaishankar on the issue. I think due to our geopolitical situation, we should maintain neutrality in some of the issues. Our policy is not to allow any force to use our land against our neighbours and friendly countries. We are adhering to this policy four our own national interest. Our fundamental policy in foreign affairs is stable in this regard.
Some of the major agenda were not included in the meeting of the Joint Commission although dozens of agenda were prepared for the meeting. Important issues like compensation for the people affected by the Koshi flood were ignored.
This is not a recent problem. Its there for the last 60 years. You should know that for the first time India-Nepal joint committee has observed the inundation area in the plains of both the countries and submitted its report. It has clearly said that the India make structures near the border have caused inundation in Nepal. The meeting had decided to implement the recommendations of the special committee. Similarly, air route issue is being handled by the civil aviation ministries of both the countries. The meeting makes agreement in principle and the line ministries work to execute it. Nepal and India have agreed to review trade and transit treaty. Its not a trade imbalance but an alarming situation.
There were some gap in understanding the nature of the mechanism and issues discussed.
It is blamed that Nepal was not able to update itself and present its part on joint meeting of EPG, is it so?
It is just a blame. Some people have expressed their views without reading the report. Let the report get published first and it will be clear that several things of national interest have been revised in that. How can anybody blame of the success or failure before going through the report?
Was the one-on-one dialogue necessary now?
Governments were not stable in past which was why priorities differed from one government to another and such dialogues seemed to be useless. But now, stable and strong governments are there which means issues of such dialogue would be utilized in national interest.
Let’s be realistic. India is ready to revise the trade and transit treaty. It’s a great achievement for us. The damages in Nepali sides due to the infrastructures made in Indian sides are accepted for the first time in its last meeting. This is positive.
Are you satisfied with government’s performance?
Yes, I am satisfied with the performance because historic achievement has been made in the last one-and-a-half-years’ time of the present government. Integration of employees is settled, and more than 300 laws were drafted or are in the process of formulation. Economy has shown signs of improvement and investment has begun to come in. There were some genuine efforts to institutionalise the new constitution. Enough policies have been drafted to effectively implement the new political structure and lead the country to the path of inclusive democracy. In addition to it, resource and tax management is settled smoothly.
The government was forced to backtrack from its position in some of the bills. Do you consider it a failure?
Proposing a legal provision and obtaining agreement of opposition parties and people on that is a democratic process. A proposal can fail. It’s the beauty of democracy, and it’s a natural process. Parties may not agree every-time on the issues. But parties in the Parliament have agreed on media council and human rights bills.
What does PM’s address stating that the democracy was in danger reflect for?
In the past, several attempts were made to damage the achievements the country made in several aspects. Internal and external factors are activated when there is a weak leadership. Perhaps, PM’s address reflects the worry for that, since he always advocated a stronger leadership to fulfil the public aspirations.
Several foreign diplomatic missions are shifting their offices elsewhere from Nepal which is troubling people for getting needful services. Is the government making any efforts to bring the services of the missions to Nepal?
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is working on that. None of the missions shifted elsewhere in my note. If it has happed there may be issues which will be settled soon. Some of the missions have shifted their visa services to New Delhi due to economic reasons. France and Australia have recently shifted their visa services to New Delhi to reduce their cost. The MoFA is also reviewing the need and positioning of Nepali missions abroad.
Some of the bilateral projects are lingering for decades. Has there been any commitment by India in terms of implementing them in the immediate future?
Deadline has been fixed for such projects. Projects which are lingering since long will be revised and concrete decisions will be taken for that. Only those projects which could be completed on time would be carried out for further processes. Diplomacy with accountability is the demand of time. (