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Nepal forces India hand on PM trip

Sushma Swaraj arrives in Kathmandu on Saturday. (AFP)

New Delhi, July 26: Prime Minister Narendra Modi may become the first foreign leader to address Nepal’s parliament after the restoration of democracy in the nation in 1990, on a trip Indian officials were calling unlikely till a Nepalese announcement made it a fait accompli.

Nepal’s foreign minister Mahendra Pandey declared in Kathmandu on Thursday evening that Modi would visit the country on August 3-4, catching New Delhi off guard with a deviation from protocol that some here are conjecturing was no innocent slip-up.

Modi will now likely speak at Nepal’s Parliament on August 4, though the ministry of external affairs has not yet confirmed the visit.

The prospective address will come at a time Nepal’s deeply divided polity is slowly trying to edge towards a consensus on a Constitution after previous failed efforts. But it is a speech that Indian officials thought, till the middle of this week, he may not need to make till November.

Soon after Modi’s meeting with Nepal Prime Minister Sushil Koirala here on the margins of his swearing-in, India had indicated that Modi would like to visit Kathmandu in the first week of August.

The plan for the visit was in keeping with Modi’s focus on India’s immediate neighbourhood, where New Delhi’s clout has slipped over the past few years. No Indian Prime Minister has visited Nepal for a bilateral trip since Inder Kumar Gujral in 1997, though Atal Bihari Vajpayee travelled to Kathmandu for the 2002 Saarc summit.

But a series of domestic challenges, a Parliament session that may run into the second week of August, and Koirala’s departure to the US for cancer treatment last month made India unsure about the visit.

Koirala returned to Kathmandu only last Tuesday, and a visit by external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj to Nepal that began yesterday would —New Delhi thought — give it a chance to gauge the possibility of Modi visiting only in November, for a Saarc summit.

If a delay were unacceptable to Nepal, India could have announced an August visit at the end of Sushma’s trip — the diplomatic norm is for the nation sending its head of government overseas to first announce the visit.

But the timing of Pandey’s announcement of dates India had suggested several weeks ago — and on the eve of Sushma’s arrival in Kathmandu —left New Delhi with little opportunity to renegotiate a Modi trip.

“This could have been by design,” an official said.

Sushma, on her three-day trip, will meet Koirala and leaders across Nepal’s political spectrum, including Maoist leader Prachanda.