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Nepal frontrunner for last trip as PM

New Delhi, Feb. 20: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has told close aides and the foreign office he is keen to visit Nepal for his final bilateral foreign trip in an attempt to plug a key hole in a neighbourhood legacy that has otherwise won admirers in the region, officials have told The Telegraph.

Singh has visited each of India’s immediate neighbours other than Nepal and Pakistan over the past decade as Prime Minister, as part of a policy of engagement even at times when diplomatic tensions were high.

His push for one final trip, this time to Kathmandu, comes at a time that nation has just elected a constituent assembly to draft a Constitution and is at the crossroads, both in its search for enduring democracy and its ties with India.

No Indian Prime Minister has travelled to Nepal for a bilateral state visit for the past 17 years since I.K. Gujral in 1997, although Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Kathmandu for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) summit in 2001.

Crucially, the nudge from Singh also comes amid the growing likelihood that his desire to visit Pakistan — where he was born in a pre-Partition era — as Prime Minister, articulated publicly in a January media interaction, is likely to remain a dream, the officials said.

“Unlike a trip to Pakistan, which is simply not on the cards now ahead of elections, a trip to Nepal is possible with a new government in place there,” an official said. “But there’s a very small window left for him to travel before the elections.”

Nepal — a strategically critical neighbour for India —elected a second constituent assembly last December. Sushil Koirala of the Nepali Congress was sworn in as Prime Minister earlier this month and had invited Singh to visit Kathmandu.

An earlier constituent assembly was dissolved in 2012 after it failed to draw up a Constitution because of deep political divides, pushing the nation back towards instability that, according to officials, allowed traditionally anti-India groups strategic space.

The new government and the fresh attempt at drafting a democratic Constitution represent an opportunity and a challenge for India. “If we send the right signals, we could strengthen our traditional ties,” a diplomat who has earlier served in Nepal said.

“If we don’t, there are other nations that will willingly fill that void for Nepal,” the diplomat said, referring to China without naming the country.

Nepal remains an oddity in the neighbourhood outreach that has been a focus for the Prime Minister especially in his second term.

Singh visited Bhutan in 2008 and 2010, Bangladesh and the Maldives in 2011, Myanmar in 2012, China in 2008, 2010 and 2011, Sri Lanka in 2008 and Afghanistan in 2005 and 2011.

The Prime Minister is also expected to travel to Myanmar early in March for a summit meeting of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec), a grouping of India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal.

Repeatedly invited by Pakistan to visit the village where he was born, Gah, Singh had privately told officials on multiple occasions that he would like to make that trip. But repeated tensions between India and Pakistan stymied every attempt.

“I still have not given up hope of going to Pakistan before I complete my tenure as Prime Minister,” Singh told reporters in early January, just months before the general elections, when traditional political wisdom advises caution on nationally sensitive subjects like Pakistan.

But officials said a trip to Pakistan in the next two months is now almost impossible. The two nations are locked in a trade dispute, with India arguing that Pakistan has reneged on a commitment to liberalise trade at the Wagah border.

Only a dramatic push by Pakistan in the trial of key accused in the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks could catalyse even serious diplomatic talks of a visit by Singh now, officials said. A trip to Nepal needs just a day’s window in the Prime Minister’s schedule.