Amid China’s increasing forays in South Asia and its deepening relations with Kathmandu, Nepal’s President Bidya Devi Bhandari is in India this week on a five-day visit (April 17-21) that provides an opportunity to both sides to address each other’s concerns on a number of issues that shadow bilateral ties.
Mrs Bhandari, the first woman president of Nepal, will hold talks with President Pranab Mukherjee, who had visited Kathmandu in November last year, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to explore ways to expand cooperation between the two fraternal neighbours. Mrs Bhandari’s visit comes in the backdrop of “intensified bilateral engagements” and these exchanges have been “immensely useful” in ensuring steady progress in co-operative ties across diverse sectors, said Sudhakar Dalela, joint secretary in charge of Nepal in India’s Ministry of External Affairs, ahead of the Nepal president’s visit. The canvas of India-Nepal ties, rooted in robust cultural and people-to-people ties, encompasses he entire spectrum, including trade, economic investment, water resources, energy sector including power trading, defence and security, oil and gas sector.
The two countries have focused on implementation of ongoing connectivity and development projects, such as tarai roads, cross-border rail linkages, development of Integrated Check Posts (ICPs), cross-border oil pipelines and transmission lines. Mr Dalela said energy cooperation between India and Nepal is “witnessing a new high”, especially in the backdrop of India’s approval of the Rs 5,720-crore hydro power project (Arun-III) to be set up in the Himalayan country. India supplies 350 MW electricity to Nepal, whose government has proposed 16 road and bridge projects worth $300 million under concessional loans of $550 million.
Mrs Bhandari’s India visit was to have taken place earlier this year, but had to be postponed due to the political turbulence in Nepal.
As with most other countries in South Asia, Nepal’s relationship with India, which is often accused of acting as a “big brother” to its smaller neighbour, has been under pressure since a months-long border blockade that ended in February last year. The blockade by the Madhesi minority was staged to protest against a new Constitution which, they said, left them politically marginalised.
Interestingly, Mrs Bhandari’s visit to India begins a day after the armies of Nepal and China began their first-ever joint military exercises on April 16. The 10-day drill in Kathmandu will focus on counter-terrorism, according to Nepal’s army. As Beijing boosts its sphere of influence in the area, China’s Defence Minister Chang Wanquan had visited Nepal- the first by a Chinese Defence Minister in 15 years– recently to discuss the joint military exercise which will be watched keenly in New Delhi. China has promised to loosen its purse strings to invest in infrastructure sectors of Nepal including recently pledging $8.3 billion in investment. The commitment dwarfed India’s investment offer of $317 million.
India has, however, denied any competition or rivalry with China, and underlined the uniqueness of India-Nepal ties. “India-Nepal ties have their own logic and as far as we are concerned, the ties are time-tested, unique and very, very close,” said Mr Dalela.