The First Nepal-India Think Tank Summit
Dr Sreeradha Datta, Centre Head & Senior Fellow, Neighbourhood Studies, VIF

The large turnout at the first India Nepal Think tank Summit held in Kathmandu on 31 July 2018 was a reflection of the deep interest people of Nepal cherish about India. While the numbers did thin a bit towards the end but the constant interactions that flowed well into the night was an engaging experience for all participating in this event co-organised by Asian Institute of Diplomacy and International Affairs (Nepal) and Nehru Memorial National Library (India).

The event which was covered extensively by the media especially the English and vernacular print, both in Nepal as well as India, largely focused on the “look South” policy proposed by Ram Madav, Director, India Foundation, to enable Nepal’s easier access to sea connectivity. The high profile inaugural session also had some interesting ideas coming forth from Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda, former prime minister of Nepal, who praised India’s support for democratic process in Nepal that has led to a positive bearing on the bilateral relations. There was a renewed commitment to work closely together and several round of discussions between the two Prime Ministers had given this bilateral relationship a fresh momentum.

Special guest, Matrika Prasad Yadav, Minister for Industry and Commerce, lamented about the lack of think tanks in Nepal while appreciating the robustness of Indian think tanks and the expertise it brought to the table. The bilateral irritants needs focused attention and Indian Ambassador to Nepal, Manjeev Singh Puri cited the various number of bilateral agreements that existed and how the economic cooperation would receive a boost through the latest Arun III hydro power project as well as now successfully completed Integrated Check Post in Birgunj. The recurring references to the traditional and deep bilateral ties resonated positively amongst the many luminaries present from both Nepal and India.

The intense one day interaction covered large grounds and was essentially friendly and frank in nature. This event witnessed representation from six Indian thinks, including Vivekananda International Foundation and a large presence of experts from Nepal ranging from think tank representatives, university professors, former ambassadors and retired armed forces officials as well as environmentalist, civil society activists and industrialists representing various chamber bodies. The discussions were spread over four sessions and included high profile dignitaries apart from the inaugural and valedictory sessions too.

The first working sessions moderated by Anil Giri, News Coordinator at Political Bureau, The Kathmandu Post, focused on building innovative cooperation between Indo-Nepal think tanks. This session generated both, exchange of frank thoughts as well as some emotional outburst about the state of the bilateral ties. Speakers from Nepal said there was a need to move away from the past experiences and focus on the commitment of the leadership on both sides to take the relations to another level. The two neighbours, although with significant asymmetry in size and power, remained connected in various ways now requires to work towards evolving as stable partners. But yet, why does Nepal’s desire for permanent peace and India’s demand of permanent friendship create controversy?

Indeed, permanent interests of both countries are best served by establishing a structure for and permanent friendship. Thus the second session on bolstering, bilateral economic ties chaired by Surendra Pandey, Former Finance Minister of Nepal, was once again a reiteration of the strong past ties that both the neighbours enjoyed. Speakers also suggested strengthening the existing ties through increasing the connectivity corridors as well as examining more products for bilateral trade such as horticulture which clearly has potential for export but had not been fully explored by India nor Nepal. The large deficit in favour of India did not go down well with most from Nepal and they wished that both sides would address this issue at the earliest. However, it was also pointed out by an industrialist panelist that Nepal is yet to create an enabling environment for interesting Indian Investments. The lack of entrepreneurships was hurting Nepal’s economy and increasing connectivity is the key to greater development.

Nepal will benefit from India’s prosperity, and the think tank forum would benefit from joint research to examine more areas of economic cooperation. Apparently, while political leaders and civil society on both sides constantly reviewed various ways to strengthen the bilateral partnership, the bureaucracy on both sides created road blocks to the suggestions that emanated from different platforms. The two countries would benefit from a long term visioning excessing about institutionalising the pathway to economic growth and development. Indeed PM Oli, has been often referring to the idea of a prosperous Nepal ushering in a happy Nepal.

The third session, on managing security dilemma, focused largely on the issue of trust deficit. The lack of awareness was lamented upon and the general ignorance about the conditions at the borders which have a narrative distinctly different from that of the hill people was cited too. This session chaired by Rajan Bhattarai, leader, Nepal Communist Party and Member of Eminent Persons Group (EPG) did refer to the broad themes of EPG Report which would soon be finalised before it is placed before the two prime ministers. He also mentioned the goodwill that exists between the two sides and how it was possible to discuss the various outstanding issues frankly. The challenge however, as was pointed out by speakers, was to effectively manage the security dilemma that was straining the bilateral ties.

The speakers also elaborated about how sovereign states necessarily had also to be responsible powers and the real challenge lay in both understanding the implications of that; Indian speakers pointed to the issue of how India should be given the first right of refusal given the context of the past historical ties and traditional linkages that has existed between the two. There was also a need to understand the degree of sovereignty each state enjoyed, moving away from a sheer legal interpretation of the term sovereign. The bilateral and regional strategic concerns need to be clearly spelt out for both to create a suitable environment for future cooperation. A robust interaction between the new constituencies that were growing in Nepal and India would complement to the traditional thoughts and ideas that exists. Nepal was keen to see India and China work closely with Nepal. There were several suggestions of close cooperation being possible on infrastructure and hydro energy cooperation too. The joint cooperation between the two Asian powers would be important for Nepal.

The point was also about Nepal’s growing tendency to balance India and China and the speakers urged caution as this could spring forth several implications for the region. Indeed, several references was made about the consequences of China’s over-reach as was evident in the various development projects that they had unveiled in the neighborhood. There were several distinct differences between the two Asian powers of India and China and each neighbor need to be cognisant about the distinctiveness. Speakers from Nepal made reference to India’s alleged support to the secessionist movement in the Tarai Region although Nepal was able to deal with the problem squarely. While both the sides were undertaking several military exercises jointly, the Nepal and India needed greater cooperation over issues of counter terrorism cooperation, money laundering, cyber security and space technology.

The depth of the bilateral relations was recapped at the final session on redefining Nepal-India Relations in the 21st Century. In this session, chaired by Ganesh Shah, former minister and standing committee member, Nepal Communist Party, the panelists argued the need for both sides to leave behind the past differences and examining all the outstanding bilateral issues cogently for building a stable partnership in the region. The core Indian argument revolved around Indian support to the people of Nepal and how they always supported the people’s choices. India was very appreciative of the robust election process that Nepal has successfully conducted and was encouraged with the promise of stability and was greatly looking forward to taking this relationship to greater heights. For India, the welfare of the people of this country their development will always be the most important factor thus the core tenants of India’s relationship needs no new redefinition. The last few high level visits have stabilized the recent edgy phase. India is hoping that both sides have moved past that and now can focus on the common strengths and commitment to work together. Consequently, the need of the hour was to restructure the priorities not redefine the bilateral ties.

Indian speakers also referred to PM Modi’s vision of ‘sabka vikas sabka saath’ which was essentially a domestic policy meant for bringing in all-inclusive growth and development that has also now been extended towards Indian engagement with the neighbourhood. This is the underlying essence of India and Nepal’s bilateral cooperative framework.

Indeed, India and Nepal need to be cognisant of the changed international environment that has a direct reflection on both these sovereign entities. This also necessitates greater understanding of each other’s’ aspirations a well as their expectation from each other. While it is necessary to identify and strengthen up the convergence of interest, it is equally important to recognise differences and pitfalls. India cannot afford to be indifferent to developments in Nepal and similarly Nepal needs to counter the recurring anti- India perceptions in Nepal mostly, perpetuated by some vested interests. Increasing the people to people connect at various levels will be able to also address the distorted public perceptions of India’s policy towards Nepal.

Sustained exchanges at this think tank forum would provide a platform to identify common interests and find mechanisms to close the trust gap. As noticed in the past despite several rounds of dialogues between the two neighbours, the issues remained mired in controversies. It was hoped this new forum under the guidance of the two leaders on both sides be able to identify the agenda correctly, engage with the right actors and effectively take forward the ideas that are generated. Fresh thinking and effective implementation of ideas, both are prerequisites to taking the relationship forward. As often mentioned by Indian PM, we need to see each other as ways to growth and prosperity. The two sides have to take a leap of faith to move the bilateral discourse to one based on mutual trust and friendship. Hopefully, this forum will enable open discussions to delve deeply into the outstanding issues thus significantly contribute to keeping the bilateral relations on a positive trajectory.

The valedictory speech was delivered by Mr. Khil Raj Regmi, Former Chairman, Council of Ministers and Former Chief Justice of Nepal who identified the bilateral relations as one of an emotional connect. India and Nepal enjoy multilayered ties connected through social, political and economic factors and cannot be defined by a single element. The people to people contact is special and deep and thus multi-faceted and a multi -dimensional approach is required on both sides to understand the bilateral ties. In keeping with the words of PM Oli, ‘if you say tell me three things Nepal needs from India, I would say, the first is friendship, the second is friendship and the third is also friendship….’ if friendship forms the basis for bilateral ties the two neighbors can achieve so much more in the days ahead.

Ground for Cooperation Published in The Himalayan Times on 12 August 2018

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