External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is slated to travel to Kathmandu today to discuss issues of "mutual interest" with top Nepal leaders just days ahead of the formation of a new government.
According to a report in The Times of India, Swaraj is scheduled to meet Sher Bahadur Deuba, KP Oli, Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda and call on President Bidya Bhandari. Her two-day trip comes as part of an attempt to reset relations with Nepal, which have been strained for some time, made worse by a recent argument over boundary pillars and encroachment on the no man's land between the two countries, according to the report.
Complicating matters is the ascendance of Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) chief KP Oli, who is widely regarded as Nepal's next prime minister after the Left Alliance's (Oli's CPN-UML and CPN-Maoist headed by Prachanda) victory at the polls. This development was viewed as something of a setback for India given that Oli had publicly criticised New Delhi for interfering in Nepal's internal matters and accused it of toppling his government last year.
Dipanjan Roy Choudhary, writing in The Economic Times, said Swaraj's visit comes after months of effort by India to re-establish its special position in the Himalayan State after China has been expanding its Nepal presence. Following Narendra Modi's telephonic conversation with Oli immediately after his re-election, several high-level contacts were established between Delhi and Kathmandu which culminating in the visit, Choudhary wrote.
And according to a report in Hindustan Times, this has paid off with Oli recently striking a more conciliatory tone in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of Republic Day: "As one of the recently elected people’s representatives and leader of the largest party in the Federal Parliament, I am eager to work together with Excellency and your government for the betterment of our two countries." Oli, who has been a vocal critic of New Delhi's policies following the blockade along the southern border with India, wrote that he expected "further close cooperation between our two countries and the people" according to the Hindustan Times report.
However, it may be far too early for India to celebrate. As an editorial in the South China Morning Post correctly pointed out, the Left Alliance shares an ideological affinity with community China and both Oli and Dahal have a personal equation with top Chinese leaders and party officials. Dahal even eschewed the tradition of visiting India after taking office and selected China as his first port of call in August 2008. And Oli has been bullish on China while he was in high office, signing multiple deals, including trade and transit, when he visited Beijing in March 2016, according to the report.
Harsh V Pant, writing in The Diplomat, acknowledges India's tricky balancing act. "The blockade along the India-Nepal border due to the Madhesi crisis angered a large part of the Nepalese population, allowing China to step in as an alternative to India by providing not only internet access but also alternative trade routes," Pant wrote. "Nepal’s economy has been ailing since the earthquake of 2015 as its reliance on aid and remittances remains at an all-time high. China’s attraction under such circumstances is quite natural."
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