From May 31 to June 3, 2023, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also known as Prachanda, the prime minister of Nepal, traveled to India for four days. In addition to being his first international trip after assuming office for the third time in December 2022, this was his fourth visit to India as prime minister.
The visit took place at the lowest moment in recent memory between India and Nepal. This is because of the ongoing border conflict and Nepal’s reluctance to allow the contentious Agnipath Scheme to continue recruiting Nepali Gorkhas for a set four-year period in the Indian Army.
The introduction of a new political map by the Indian government in November 2019 marked the beginning of the most current disputes between India and Nepal. The repeal of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which eliminated the state of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and established a new Union Territory of Ladakh, necessitated the creation of a new map.
Nepal protested to the revised map, claiming that the Kalapani area, which marks its western border with India, was improperly delineated. Public outcry over this resulted in widespread anti-India demonstrations across Nepal. Although New Delhi committed to resolve Nepal’s issues via diplomatic engagement in order to quell the anti-India reaction, India first denied Nepal’s charges and continues to do so.
However, this dispute was used by the then-governing Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) (CPN-UML) to bolster its support base. A new map issued by CPN-UML labels significant areas of India as Nepal. The legislative ratification of this new map of Nepal complicates the problem for the diplomatic community to address.
The recruitment of Nepali Gorkhas into the Indian Army is the second problem affecting ties between India and Nepal. This unusual tradition persisted for 70 years until the Agnipath Scheme in India put an end to it in June 2022. Under the plan, all branches of the armed forces would hire troops below the level of commissioned officer on a contract basis for a set four-year tenure. The program is available to residents of Nepal who are from the Gorkha ethnic group.
Although the rewards of long-term service for Nepali Gorkha military personnel are comparable to those of their Indian counterparts, the program’s set four-year service period will restrict the number of new recruits. They will not be eligible for long-term social security payments or a military pension. Ever since the Agnipath Scheme was introduced, Nepal has refused to send its residents to serve a four-year term in the Indian army, hence no Gorkhas have been recruited. However, the Agnipath Scheme is still pending approvals from the Nepali government.
Nevertheless, Prachanda’s presence produced noticeable improvements in connectivity and the economy. In addition to Bihar, Nepal was allowed to sell power to other Indian states, which is a positive start in closing the trade gap with India. During this visit, the commercial and Transit Treaty was revised after seven years, giving Nepal access to India’s inland waterways and maintaining its third-country commercial access to various Indian ports.
The two leaders achieved significant strides in their collaboration on hydropower. The 400 kilovolt Butwal–Gorakhpur transmission line’s foundations were set. Two agreements were signed: one to establish the 669 megawatt Lower Arun hydropower project and the other to create the ambitious 480 megawatt Phukot–Karnali hydropower development project.
Over the next ten years, India intends to import 10,000 megawatts of hydropower from Nepal, creating a win-win scenario for both countries. The first trilateral power transaction between Bangladesh, India, and Nepal was also lauded in Nepal. These accords are important for Nepal’s economic development since they enable the country to reduce its trade imbalance with India.
Most significantly, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi consented to hold talks to settle the border conflict. During the joint news conference between the two leaders, this is the first time that the Indian Prime Minister has formally acknowledged to address the border problem in the presence of his Nepali counterpart.
With Prachanda’s presence, some of the pessimism has subsided and diplomatic routes for conflict settlement have been reenergized. Although the results of the visit are praised, Prachanda has come under fire from the opposition. The visit’s results were questioned since no quick fixes for the border or the problem of Gorkha recruitment in the Indian Army were achieved.
Nepal’s popular sentiment against India has become more negative as long as diplomatic talks about resolving these concerns continue. With the rise in popularity of social media hashtags like #BackOffIndia and #GoBackIndia, the anti-India campaign has become stronger. The CPN-UML’s ultra-nationalistic viewpoint, which stems from its anti-India stance, is more worrisome.
Given that interpersonal relationships are the cornerstone of bilateral relations, New Delhi is concerned about the shifting public opinion in Nepal about India. Given that Nepal and Tibet share a lengthy border, any shift in public opinion toward New Delhi may impede India’s geostrategic and security concerns in the Himalayas, particularly with China.
By strengthening connections with its northern neighbor China, Nepal has tried to reduce its excessive dependence on India for connectivity and commerce during the last seven years. Nepal joined the Belt and Road Initiative in 2017, signed the Trade and Transit Treaty with China in 2016, and participated in joint military drills in 2017 and 2018. India has to seek to settle its outstanding concerns with Nepal in order to promote bilateral economic cooperation, especially in light of the strong pressure Nepal’s political class is putting on India to engage with China.