All eyes in Kathmandu on Sushma Swaraj’s visit

SUshmaIndia’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is headed on her maiden visit to Nepal July 25-27, her second trip to a neighbouring country after she took charge over a month ago.

Swaraj’s visit has raised expectations in Nepal about a positive upswing in bilateral ties since the installation of the Narendra Modi government in New Delhi May 26.

The talks are expected to encompass an entire spectrum of bilateral relations, including increasing investment in Nepal, developing Nepal’s hydro-power sector, strengthening cooperation in the defence sector and taking ahead negotiations on the settlement of border disputes.

The Modi wave was quite palpable in Kathmandu in the course of and even after the 2014 Indian parliamentary elections. Many in Nepal hope that India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi will impart consistency to the fluctuating relationship between New Delhi and Kathmandu. Hopes were raised further when the prime minister invited heads of governments from neighbouring countries to attend his swearing in.

Barring the sentiment in Nepalese media that Nepal’s Prime Minister Sushil Koirala could not make enough of a splash in Delhi, things went off smoothly.

The media in Nepal is generally upbeat about Sushma Swaraj’s visit and has been reporting in detail about preparations and expectations from the visit. But over the course of last week, hopes of resetting relations between India and Nepal have suffered a serious setback.

After the Indian draft of the ‘Energy Cooperation Agreement’ was leaked, the Nepali media, along with a number of political parties, have been vocal in opposing India’s proposal for development of Nepal’s abundant water resources. They claim the proposal is not in Nepal’s national interest, making it easy for radicals to stoke anti-Indian sentiments.

The media reported that the draft proposal contains clauses that are objectionable to Nepal, including Clause B of Article-III (Investment in Power Projects), which allegedly disallows Nepal from harnessing its own water resources without seeking India’s prior consent.

HydroppowerAccording to reports, the clause also prohibits countries, barring India, from investing in Nepal’s hydropower resources.

A number of political parties including the Nepal Communist Party-Maoist, and Unified Maoists have protested against the agreement. Dharmendra Bastola, chief of Nepal Communist Party- Maoist’s energy division alleged:  “If the Nepali side accepts this proposal, houses in India will dazzle, but Nepali households will have to live in the dark for a hundred years to come”.

The attempts at clarification by the Nepal’s Energy Minister Radha Gyawali did little to pacify concerns. At a press meeting on July 20, Gyawali said: “The Indian draft is positive for us. There is nothing in it that is against our national interest.”

“We have had enough of politics. Let us shun the tradition of unnecessarily suspecting India; else we will lag behind considerably. We need to move ahead positively.”

Reacting to media reports that could place Sushma Swaraj in an uncomfortable position during her visit, the Indian embassy in Nepal also sought to clarify that India’s draft proposal does not contain conditions which are counterproductive to Nepal’s national interest of hydropower development.

The statement released on July 20 added that the proposal requires bilateral negotiations prior to finalization. It added: “Both sides are free to propose amendments or modifications to the draft.”

At an earlier meeting,many Nepal’s former energy ministers, from across the political spectrum, had expressed their concerns about India’s intentions. They demanded that India come up with a proposal that allows for power trade rather than power development in Nepal.

The online newspaper Telegraphnepal has been actively reporting on the proposal. The narrative has been generally negative toward attempts at reconciliation with India in this regard.

Leading English national dailies such asThe Kathmandu Post and Republica have also taken up the issue. In an editorial, The Kathmandu Postslammed the “hush-hush” approach adopted by both the governments.

The editorial stated that by the time the Indian embassy issued a clarification, “a lot of damage had already been done. History was yet again ignored altogether by both Kathmandu and New Delhi.”

Republica stated that India continued to look to Nepal as a playground and “foist cut-and-dried agreements on its small neighbour, rather than look to work out a win-win formula.”

Nepali Times, another leading media outlet, also raised concerns about India’s intentions. It said: “According to points III and IIIa of the new proposal, only companies okayed by India would get to invest in hydro projects. Nepal would only be permitted to invest in partnership with India, and third-country investment would be disallowed.”

It also highlighted that many in Nepal, including Former Water Resource Minister Laxman Prasad Ghimire of Nepali Congress, considered India’s proposal as an insult to Nepal.

While much needs to be discussed between India and Nepal, the issue of the leaked draft has dominated Nepal’s media for the last few days. The much-awaited visit by Sushma Swaraj will unfortunately be dominated by Nepal’s concerns about India’s intentions.

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