Through highs and lows in ties with India, Nepal wraps 2020 with political turmoil          

KATHMANDU: India’s relations with Nepal witnessed one of its lowest phases ever in the year 2020 after a bitter border row, but the bilateral ties were brought on track with a series of high-level interactions at a time when the Himalayan neighbour has plunged into a deep political crisis over a power tussle within the ruling dispensation.

The bilateral ties, founded on the age-old connection of history, culture, tradition and religion, came under strain after Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated an 80-km-long strategically crucial road connecting the Lipulekh pass with Dharchula in Uttarakhand on May 8.

Nepal protested the inauguration of the road claiming that it passed through its territory. Days later, Nepal came out with a new map showing Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura as its territories.

After Nepal released the map, India reacted sharply, calling it a “unilateral act” and cautioning Kathmandu that such “artificial enlargement” of territorial claims will not be acceptable to it. India said that Nepal’s action violated an understanding reached between the two countries to resolve the boundary issues through talks.

The bilateral exchanges that had stalled due to the bitter boundary dispute and the COVID-19 pandemic were reset in the later part of the year with a series of high-level visits, as New Delhi emphasised that it sees itself as the Himalayan nation’s “foremost friend” and development partner.

Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s maiden visit to Nepal in November was largely aimed at resetting bilateral ties. Shringla met Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli and other top political brass and emphasised that India and Nepal are on the same page and share the same vision.

Oli also conveyed Nepal’s desire to build on the momentum in the bilateral relationship and enhance the level of bilateral engagement. He said that history has left some unresolved issues between Nepal and India, which can be resolved through dialogue.

Shringla’s trip followed earlier ones by Indian Army chief Gen. MM Naravane, and a whirlwind tour by Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) chief Samant Kumar Goel to Kathmandu in a bid to mend ties. Senior BJP leader and the party’s head of the foreign affairs department Vijay Chauthaiwale also visited Nepal in early December.

The high-profile visits came at a time when the intra-party rift in the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) was at its peak due to a prolonged rivalry between two factions – one led by Oli and the other by former prime minister and party’s executive chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ over a power-sharing deal.

The year ended with a controversial move by embattled Prime Minister Oli who got President Bidya Devi Bhandari to dissolve Parliament and announce mid-term general election in April-May, a decision termed “unconstitutional, impulsive and autocratic” by the Opposition and dissidents in the NCP.

Oli, known for his pro-China leanings, had claimed that efforts were being made to oust him after his government redrew the country’s political map by incorporating three strategically key Indian territories.

Amidst the political turmoil, the country also saw pro-monarchy rallies in different parts of the country, demanding reinstatement of constitutional monarchy and re-establishing the country as a Hindu state.

Nepal was declared a secular state in 2008 after the success of the people’s movement of 2006 that saw the abolition of its 240-year-old monarchy.

The year also saw China further firming up its ties with Nepal, which shares borders with Tibet, with heavy investments besides loans and financial assistance.

China’s Defence Minister and State Councillor Gen. Wei Fenghe visited the country and held talks with Prime Minister Oli. He also held talks with Nepal Army Chief Gen. Purna Chandra Thapa on ways to resume military cooperation and training impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gen Wei’s trip was the highest-level visit from China after President Xi Jinping’s two-day state visit that took place in October last year. China, however, said that its close ties with Nepal, reinforced during the recent visit of its Defence Minister will not affect “any third party”.

China’s political profile in Nepal has been on the rise in the recent years with billions of dollars of investments under Beijing’s multi-billion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), including the building of the Trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network.

China and Nepal also joined hands and remeasured Mt Everest’s height at 8,848.86 metres that put an end to the decades-long dispute between the two neighbours on the height of the world’s tallest mountain that straddles their shared border.

The world’s highest peak is now taller by 86 centimetres. China termed its joint efforts with Nepal to measure Mount Everest’s height as a new milestone for the burgeoning friendship between the two countries.

The ongoing political crisis has brought uncertainty over the future of India’s ties with Nepal, which enjoys a special significance in New Delhi’s foreign policy due to its geographical, historical, cultural and economic linkages.

The people of the two countries maintain close bonds through marriages and family ties, also known as ‘Roti-Beti ka Rishta’ (relation of food and family).

India has described Oli’s sudden decision to dissolve Parliament and call for fresh elections as an “internal matter” that is for the country to decide as per its democratic processes. (AGENCIES)