Can Nepal and India move beyond the hurdles of the past by focusing on new avenues of cooperation in BIMSTEC?
The bilateral relationship between the Himalayan country of Nepal and India in the new year of 2022 was inaugurated with an amicable telephonic conversation on 6 January, over cooperative prospects—reinvigorating a tabula rasa. As the Nepalese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Narayan Khadka, exchanged greetings with his Indian counterpart, S. Jaishankar, what comes across is a reflection of both the countries attempting to explore better dimensions of their bilateral ties through both pre-existing and new ventures. This stride would help to go beyond the cold demeanour of the recent past, post 2019, encompassing issues ranging from border disputes to the delay in supplying COVID-19 vaccines from India. More importantly, during 2021, Kathmandu remained embroiled in an unstable and fragile internal political scenario with the establishment of the new government led by Sher Bahadur Deuba. Circumstantially, what remains to be seen is a reformed interaction between the two governments, as even though Deuba and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have previously worked together, the situation has now completely altered with novel challenges to address.
In the meantime, Nepal has been making much progress in capitalising on the opportunities being offered in the multilateral forum of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). Very recently, the Secretary General of BIMSTEC, Tenzin Lekphell called upon the Nepalese Foreign Minister along with other high-level dignitaries to underline Nepal’s contributions in the forum, envisioning the fifth BIMSTEC Summit that is to be held in March 2022 and future collaborative aspirations.
Nepal primarily leads the sector on People-to-People Connectivity, with sub-sections comprising of Culture, Tourism ,and People-to-People Contact Forums.
Within this organisation, Nepal primarily leads the sector on People-to-People Connectivity, with sub-sections comprising of Culture, Tourism, and People-to-People Contact Forums. As one of the most crucial pillars in establishing substantial regional integration, the engagement of people at the grassroot level became an integral part of BIMSTEC in 2004, during the 1st Ministerial Summit held in Bangkok, Thailand. Since then, Nepal has been proactive in all the sub-sectors, especially tourism, so that it can further leverage itself as a tourist destination. Nonetheless, such a perception is already prevalent because of the presence of Mount Everest—attracting trekkers and mountaineers, the Buddhist Tourist Circuit, Eco-Tourism, as well as medical tourism. The cumulative value of this tourism has been helping the country to increase its GDP (7.9 percent as in 2019) over the last few years. In this regard, the Nepalese government’s “Visit Nepal Year 2020” campaign was held with fanfare, aiming to strengthen the tourism infrastructure as well as upgrade the internal airports for better connectivity. Furthermore, Nepal has been undertaking initiatives for better travel across all the member countries through intra-BIMSTEC tourism and the “Plan of Action for Tourism Development and Promotion for the BIMSTEC Region”, so that it can be a win-win situation for both the parties involved.
This aspect of tourism also attempted to expedite the matters on the easy availability of visa with BIMSTEC Business Card/ Visa. The third BIMSTEC Summit had reiterated this aspect that initiated the promotion of people-to-people contact through the BIMSTEC Business Visa Scheme and the BIMSTEC Visa Exemption Scheme. Such programmes were primarily targeted to establish forums for parliamentarians, academicians, the youth, entrepreneurs, research institutes, cultural organisations, and media institutions to engage with each other more closely, within the BIMSTEC region, for further collaborative projects. The BIMSTEC Network of Policy Think Tanks (BNPTT), established in 2008, at the second BIMSTEC Summit that was held in New Delhi, has been particularly instrumental. This framework also includes the creation of the Association of BIMSTEC Speakers and Parliamentarians, bringing together the representatives of the national parliaments of all the BIMSTEC nations, encouraging healthy debates, discussions, procedures and practices, along with fair representation. It is noteworthy that all these plans and programmes come under the umbrella of Nepal that has been trying its best to function as one of the responsible members of the BIMSTEC, much evident from the last BIMSTEC summit that was held in Kathmandu. This congregation brought about the conclusion of the 18-Point Kathmandu Declaration that targeted multifaceted developments in the fields of multidimensional connectivity, war against terror, poverty alleviation, increased trade and investment, and climate change, to name a few.
The cumulative value of this tourism has been helping the country to increase its GDP (7.9 percent as in 2019) over the last few years. In this regard, the Nepalese government’s “Visit Nepal Year 2020” campaign was held with fanfare, aiming to strengthen the tourism infrastructure as well as upgrade the internal airports for better connectivity.
Interestingly, Nepal and India have been working in close quarters in this forum. This is despite the tumultuous journey that they had been on since the past few years, with undercurrents of negative Nepalese sentiments since the 2015 India-Nepal blockade. However, the interaction of the two countries within BIMSTEC has not been a very smooth sailing. A major disagreement in this platform was witnessed in 2018 when the Nepalese government had outrightly rejected participation of the Nepalese Army in the first ever military exercise of the BIMSTEC countries. Even though the then Chief Nepalese Army Chief Purna Chandra Thapa was scheduled to attend the closing ceremony of the six-day counterterrorism drill at Pune, India, strict instructions from the Prime Minister K. P Sharma Oli, cancelled any Nepalese participation. This was also around the time when former Prime Minister of Nepal, Pushpa Kamal Dahal or Prachanda was in India to call upon PM Modi. This drill was mainly organised by the Indian Army and arguments were ripe regarding India’s own vested interest in hosting such an event, in the garb of BIMSTEC joint effort. Furthermore, other critics had mentioned that this event was a venture to promote BIMSTEC as against the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), by India, that has not been able to move out of dormancy because of the alleged India-Pakistan rivalry, thereby creating implications for the region and motivating smaller powers like Nepal. At the same time, Nepal might have realised the repercussions of such a strategic drill given its close proximity with China, not willing to portray any military liaison with India that does not share a good rapport with the latter.
A major disagreement in this platform was witnessed in 2018 when the Nepalese government had outrightly rejected participation of the Nepalese Army in the first ever military exercise of the BIMSTEC countries.
However, Nepal must realise the geopolitical significance of the Bay of Bengal region and the benefits that can be harnessed with the support of India. For instance, through the BIMSTEC Energy Centre, established on 22nd January 2011, India can provide big investment and support long gestation period for a country like Nepal, to actualise its hydropower potential. At the same time, possibilities of cross-border river transportation with the navigation of larger, motorised ships down to Patna (Bihar, India) on the banks of the Ganges, from the Gandaki (near Chitwan National Park) and Koshi rivers, south of the barrages, flowing into India, west of Biratnagar, may be refurbished. Even though these Nepalese rivers were declared as ‘unsuitable’ for motorised navigation, former PM Oli had initiated the process of survey, with his Indian counterpart in 2018, with prospects of establishing docks and ports, river customs points, immigration offices, and quarantine facilities. However, much progress has not been made on this front, providing an opportunity for research and development between the two countries, within the domain of BIMSTEC. This is how both the countries can utilise the multilateral setup to enhance bilateral negotiations with convalescent outcomes for the future.
Even though 2022 looks bright for this bilateral relationship, effort needs to be put in to wipe away the memories of disagreement. This can be done by focusing on sectors that are easier to access.
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Sohini Nayak was a Junior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Presently she is working on Nepal-India and Bhutan-India bilateral relations along with sub regionalism and ...Read More +