Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Nepal and his address to the Parliament have become the talk of the town. It has been hailed as a milestone in Nepal India relations. Is that the case? Or are we getting needlessly excited? Minister for Foreign Affairs Mahendra Bahadur Pandey offers his insights in an interview with us.
First of all, can you enumerate the major achievements of Modi’s Nepal visit?
His visit has cleared many confusions and mistrust that had been developing over the last 17 years. The visit reinvigorated Nepal-India relation and gave it a progressive path. It has helped rebuild trust and confidence between the two countries. Our conclusion is that we should resolve all outstanding issues without any further ado. Our relations, as such, have taken a new height. This is the big achievement.
Do you believe the huge expectations with Modi’s visit were met?
More than expectations there were speculations. We were worried whether we would be able to improve our relations. On this front, we have been successful. Given his strong religious background, some in Nepal had speculated that Modi would try to promote religious and cultural sites here. He has done this too. He pledged support for the development of religious and cultural sites such as Pashupatinath, Lumbini and Baraha Chhetra. Nepalis had thought of him as action-oriented and vision-oriented leader and someone who obeyed his heart. Similarly, there was security concern about his visit. But he proved that he did not need elaborate security arrangements. He even cut back on our security arrangements. Once he even stepped out of the car and reached out to the common people who were greeting him. This shows that he trusted Nepal and Nepalis. It also shows that he does what his heart tells him. Nepali leaders, especially our young and up and coming leaders, should learn from him how to remain in touch with people.
Modi is said to have made a departure from the way his predecessors dealt with Nepal. Is that the case?
BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee had visited Nepal in 2002 as the head of government during the SAARC Summit. Vajpayee was a serious-minded leader and behaved accordingly. Modi is much more active, determined and decisive. Again you have to look at the contexts of these two visits. Global and regional dynamics in 2002 was much different from what it is today. Congress-led UPA government has ruled India for the last decade. But that was a coalition government, which means government spent much of its energy keeping the coalition intact. Perhaps this was the reason the previous government could not give much importance to neighboring countries. But the current BJP government is different. Its landslide victory in recent election has given BJP absolute mandate. So it has given confidence to BJP to govern and take country’s economic development to a new level. These factors make Modi and BJP government different from its predecessors.
Can Modi’s visit be seen as opening of a new chapter in Nepal-India ties?
Every development following a new event becomes a new chapter in history. Like I said, Modi’s visit has guided our stagnant relations back into motion again. A new chapter has surely begun. But it is important to understand how the contents of this chapter can serve the interests of both the countries; whether we can capitalize on our shared culture, history and resources. The question is whether we can move ahead by honoring each other. If we can do this in the days ahead, the visit could indeed prove to be a new chapter in our bilateral relations.
But the much-talked about revision of 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship did not make any headway.
Not exactly. I was the one to call on PM Modi first from Nepali side as the foreign minister. During my meeting with him, I had raised all bilateral issues including the 1950 treaty and border issues. He had taken them positively. During his visit, Modi made it clear that India is open to discuss all issues. From our side we were always open to dialogue. Now both seem ready for action. This is positive. But we must not forget two vital aspects of 1950 treaty, context and content. The context in which this treaty was signed was different. Back then, India had just become free of colonial rule. China had got rid of capitalist government and was on the path of progressive governance. Nepal was on the way to abolishing Rana rule. There was a kind of misgiving, even fear, between Nepal and India. The treaty had been signed to allay those fears. We have come a long way since.
In the last 64 years, there have been great changes in the world. Even Indo-China relations have improved significantly. India used to prioritize its security concerns while dealing with Nepal. But we have made it clear that we won’t allow Nepali soil to be used against India and China. Likewise, India has pledged not to allow its land to be used against Nepal. Nepal and India have agreed to control sporadic border crimes. And it is universally accepted that a sovereign nation can export goods to any country and import them from any country it likes. These are content related issues. Now both of us are ready for a new agreement based on these realities. We have started to prepare a draft from our side. I believe India has done the same. We will each put our drafts on the table. The treaty will be revised.
During the Modi visit it seemed only Nepal had expectations. What were the key concerns of India?
India wanted to resolve all outstanding issues to cement bilateral ties and use resources of both countries for mutual benefit. Modi’s emphasis was hydropower in Nepal, which was our concern as well. Neither we nor India has been able to make most out of our water resources. If we could generate enough hydropower from these rivers and sell it to India it could illuminate India as well. But our rivers have inundated India and triggered landslides and floods in Nepal. Modi’s concern was that these great resources should be harnessed for mutual benefit. They must not be wasted.
It is rumored that India wanted Nepali side to sign the border strip map while setting aside border disputes at Susta and Kalapani.
Let us be clear. There can be no dialogue under pressure nor can friendship be maintained through pressure tactics. They said that 98 percent of border strip map has been completed and that we could sign it now and resolve contentious issues later. But we did not agree. We told them that all the contentious issues should be resolved before signing the map. India has taken our proposal positively.
No Power Development Agreement (PDA) or Power Trade Agreement (PTA) was signed. Wasn’t Nepali side prepared?
If you ask Indians why PTA could not be signed perhaps they will say ‘it’s because India was not prepared for it.’ A PTA draft had been sent to India in 2010 to which India had not responded. India proposed a new draft recently. When such a draft is made, each country looks to secure maximum benefits for itself. The psychology of ‘bigger the stake bigger the gain’ works in such deals. The draft proposed by India naturally had greater claims for India. But this draft was leaked to the media and caused an uproar. We sent the draft back. Before India could respond to it, Modi came calling. As for PDA of Upper Karnali, the Investment Board has been working on it but has yet to settle three things: technical aspects, legal aspects and broader political consensus. This is the reason Prime Minister Sushil Koirala and PM Modi have decided to complete PTA and PDA issues within 45 days. Besides, PTA and PDA are critical issues. They must not be decided in haste. They need deliberation and debate.
Let’s change track. How is the government preparing for the upcoming SAARC Summit?
Preparations are in full swing. A central committee has been formed under PM’s leadership for this. Besides, there are committees under foreign ministry, finance ministry, ministry of culture, ministry for local development and ministry of home to work on security, decoration, logistic and other issues. All these committees are working actively. Besides, there is an advisory committee comprising intellectuals, scholars, journalists, experts and political leaders. This committee has held several meetings as well.
Are there any new agendas that Nepal is going to raise as the host of SAARC summit and SAARC secretariat?
We will raise concerns according the mandate of the SAARC charter. But we are thinking of making ‘retreats’ an integral part of SAARC summit to facilitate informal discussion regarding crucial issues among the heads of state and government. We are thinking about the theme of SAARC summit as well. We intend to create cultural and economic circuits among the nations. We are discussing these issues at various levels in different committee meetings.
Finally, why this frustrating delay in ambassador appointment?
I raised this issue even today (Tuesday) and we have decided not to delay it any further. We were busy with Modi’s visit for the last few days. So this issue could not receive due attention. Now we have prepared the criteria and completed other procedural issues. We will start appointment process soon. I cannot tell you when, but it will happen soon
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