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To Nepal, Sushma & suspense

Sushma Swaraj and Sushil Koirala

New Delhi, July 22: Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj will this weekend fly to Nepal with a plane-load of promises rooted in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s desire to reassert India’s clout in its neighbourhood. But her visit may not be followed by the trip Kathmandu is really waiting for.

Modi has not yet approved a proposal for him to visit Nepal in August, and senior government officials have said the Prime Minister is now likely to visit Kathmandu only in November for a Saarc summit.

The officials were quick to assert that Modi’s likely inability to visit Nepal before November does not reflect any change in the Prime Minister’s keenness to expand and strengthen ties with Kathmandu at a time India’s northern neighbour is in the middle of a political transition.

“An August visit is just very, very difficult now, given his schedule,” an official said.

But if Sushma, who will be in Nepal on July 26-27, does indicate to her hosts that Modi may visit only in November, it will likely leave the government of Nepal Prime Minister Sushil Koirala disappointed.

On her trip, Sushma is expected to revive a Nepal-India Joint Commission headed by the two foreign ministers to regularly work on bilateral projects.

The commission was initiated in 1991 when then Indian Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar had visited Nepal. But the mechanism was abandoned after just one meeting later that year in New Delhi, as the relationship between the nations increasingly evolved into one where India dictated the development projects the neighbours would jointly take up.

The revival of the mechanism is a signal by the Modi government that it views Nepal as a partner, and wants to assist in ways that Kathmandu needs.

Sushma will also assure her hosts that India will expedite its delivery on a series of infrastructure and services-related projects that are ongoing but have been blighted by serial delays.

In the days following Modi’s meeting with Koirala after the Indian Prime Minister’s swearing-in ceremony on May 26, New Delhi had indicated to Kathmandu that Modi would visit Nepal in early August.

Sushma’s visit was understood by Nepal as a trip meant to prepare for bilateral talks between Modi and Koirala in August.

One of Nepal’s biggest diplomatic grievances against India has been that no Indian Prime Minister has visited Kathmandu for a bilateral trip in 17 years — since Inder Kumar Gujral made the journey in 1997.

Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee travelled to Kathmandu in 2001 for a Saarc summit.

Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh visited every other Saarc nation other than Pakistan and Nepal. He wanted to visit both those neighbours — but could not travel to Pakistan because of bilateral tensions. India’s foreign office has never had a clear enough explanation — other than a busy schedule — for Singh’s inability to travel for a bilateral visit to Nepal.

An attempt at preparing a day-long bilateral visit by Singh to Kathmandu in April, just before India began its Lok Sabha elections, fell through.

Officials said Modi had indicated his desire to visit Nepal soon after taking over. But a series of scheduling challenges, which were not known when he met Koirala late in May, have complicated plans for an August visit.

The ongoing budget session is scheduled to get over only on August 14, and though it may be terminated earlier, the government cannot plan a bilateral overseas trip till a decision is taken.

Modi postponed a planned trip to Japan in July citing the Parliament session, and flew to Brazil for the BRICS summit only because it was a pre-scheduled multilateral event, officials said.

Modi also already has a busy diplomatic schedule in September including a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, and a month-end date with US President Barack Obama at the White House on September 30.