Buoyed by historic agreement on sharing geospatial cooperation with the US, India is sending its army chief M. M. Naravane to Nepal on November 4 in an apparent bid to mend the strained ties with the Himalayan republic. But two weeks before his three-day customary trip, chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) Samant Goel stole the show. He and his team landed in Kathmandu by Indian Air Force special aircraft in the full glare of inquisitive reporters and met with Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli in the evening. His sudden visit created unintended ripples of discontent among some political and civil society members largely owing to the lack of timely communication as well as consultation inside the ruling party.
Surprise Goel came here as the emissary of Indian PM Narendra Modi, according to Nepal’s top cabinet members and PM’s advisors, though Modi did not make any statement that he sent the external intelligence chief to Kathmandu on a political mission. It was India’s decision, not Nepal, to designate Goel for initiating reconciliatory talks with Nepal on the thorny territorial dispute but PM Oli faced a barrage of criticisms for receiving him at his official residence. Still observers from both countries are taken aback as to why the Modi government picked Goel instead of civilian or political figures to deal with a neighbour that has been affronted by the former’s own hegemonic behaviour. According to a commentator of an Indian news website ThePrint, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and his secretariat have been tasked with handling the issues with the neighbourhood, leaving ‘large parts of the rest of the world to the responsibility of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA)’. For example, Doval is also India’s Special Representative to hold talks with China on the border dispute and Foreign Minister Wang Yi is his interlocutor from the Chinese side. The visit of Goel, who is accountable to PM Modi, took place at a critical moment when the MEA showed apathy towards ending the deadlock with Nepal. By sending him to Nepal, Modi appears to deliver a message that it has not softened its position on Nepal’s new map that incorporates Kalapani, Lipulek and Limpiyadhura encroached upon by India since 1962. Some analysts argue that it was Modi’s tactical step in choosing Goel for it stirred up a hornet’s nest within ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP), which the Nepali side failed to grasp. They insist that Modi could send a top-notch diplomat if he really wanted to break the ice with Nepal. The RAW has earned notoriety in the region for its alleged role in meddling in the internal affairs of its neighbours. Goel came to Nepal at a time when the anti-Indian sentiments continue to run high. This was the reason why his parley with PM Oli did not go well with some foreign policy watchers and the ruling party stalwarts even if it was dubbed a ‘courtesy call’. During his meeting with PM Oli, Goel said India was not for “allowing interruption in friendly relations with Nepal as it wanted to iron out all the outstanding issues through dialogue while maintaining continued mutual cooperation.” This good gesture on the part of the southern neighbour is praiseworthy and must be translated into action. Naravane’s visit can be an opportune moment to assess whether India has changed its attitude towards Nepal following months of impasse over the new maps unveiled by both nations and its nasty military stand-off with China. Given that Indian military check posts have been occupying Nepali territory in the far-west, Indian army chief is the right person to convey Nepal’s strong call for their withdrawal. If the two nations revisit the past that was fraught with geopolitical tussle, they will find a historic precedent of the solution of military tension. In 1969, the then Indian military leadership had agreed – though reluctantly – to withdraw its 18 checkposts stationed along Nepal-China border in 1952. That time Nepali rulers had demonstrated diplomatic aptitude and astuteness to safeguard national sovereignty at the height of Cold War.
Intra-party bickering Nonetheless, if the Indian establishment mobilises intelligence and military elements to thaw the frosty ties with Nepal, there will be no better leader than Oli to handle the overbearing neighbour. Oli had risen to occasion time and again, defending national sovereignty, territorial integrity and dignity of Nepali people in the past. He stood up to the Indian blockade and led the entire country in publishing the historic new political map to get back the infringed land.
It is quite irrational to question his nationalistic credentials just because he met the RAW chief. However, as a powerful PM and chief of the largest political party, he should take all stakeholders into confidence before building a unified stand on a string of foreign issues, including that of territorial dispute with India. But ironically, the NCP is now a divided house. The intra-party bickering could weaken the government’s position as the two nations return to the negotiating table to settle the long-running dispute. Now the key task ahead of PM Oli is to get his house in order before dealing with a mighty neighbour head-on.