In a year fraught with political turbulence and the coronavirus pandemic tightening its grip in Nepal, 2021 saw Kathmandu making efforts to reset its bilateral ties with India with high-profile talks and visits, amidst a change in guard in the top leadership in the Himalayan nation.
Coming out from the shadow of the border row that engulfed the Indo-Nepal bilateral ties in 2020, the year 2021 opened with India gifting one million domestically manufactured Covishield vaccines to Nepal in January as it struggled to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. The deadly virus has so far infected over 825,000 people and claimed nearly 12,000 deaths in Nepal.
In the same month, India provided grant assistance of NRs 30.66 crore (INR 19.21 cr) to Nepal as part of its commitment towards the reconstruction of educational institutions damaged during the devastating 2015 earthquake, which claimed nearly 9,000 lives and wounded nearly 22,000. With this, India reimbursed NRs 81.98 crore (INR 51.37 cr) to Nepal for educational sector reconstruction projects.
The bilateral ties had seen new lows in 2020 after Nepal released a new map showing Lipulekh, Kalapani, and Limpiyadhura as its territories, prompting India to caution Kathmandu that such ”artificial enlargement” of territorial claims will not be acceptable to it.
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On the domestic political front, Nepal in 2021 saw a change in top leadership with Nepali Congress (NC) chief Sher Bahadur Deuba becoming the prime minister for a record fifth time in July, following a months-long high-voltage drama.
In a landmark verdict on July 12, the Supreme Court directed President Bidya Devi Bhandari to appoint Opposition leader Deuba as prime minister and dismissed her ”unconstitutional” move to dissolve the House of Representatives that plunged the country into a major political crisis.
President Bhandari dissolved the 275-member lower house for the second time in five months on May 22 at the recommendation of embattled Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli and announced snap elections on November 12 and November 19.
On July 13, Deuba formally became Nepal’s prime minister. However, just four days after on July 18, the 75-year-old new premier sprang a surprise by seeking a vote of confidence in the reinstated lower House of Representatives and comfortably won it, averting a general election in the Himalayan nation amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
A day after, on July 19 Deuba, during a telephone conversation with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, shared his views on further strengthening the bilateral ties, founded on the age-old connection of history, culture, tradition and religion.
The year also saw the main opposition and Nepal’s largest communist party CPN-UML being officially split in August when senior leader Madhav Kumar Nepal quit Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist) and floated CPN-Unified Socialist.
Meanwhile, Oli continued with his streak of stoking controversy by making remarks related to India. In June, while he was still the prime minister, Oli at an event to observe the International Yoga Day claimed Yoga originated in Nepal, and not in India.
However, the remarks of Oli — who in 2020 had also stirred a controversy after claiming that Lord Ram was born in Madi area in Nepal’s Chitwan district and not in India’s Ayodhya — failed to make any major dent in the bilateral ties, which was witnessing an upward trajectory.
In January, then foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali visited New Delhi and met his Indian counterpart S Jaishankar. During the visit, he said both New Delhi and Kathmandu have a ”common commitment” to resolve the boundary issue and suggested that both sides are working on modalities to address it.
Gyawali was the senior-most political leader from Nepal to visit India after Oli in 2020 triggered the border row.
In April, he asserted that there is no issue between Nepal and India that cannot be resolved through dialogue, underlining that the two countries are ”friends and not competitors”.
The efforts to build on the momentum in the Nepal-India bilateral relationship and enhance the level of bilateral engagement continued in the Deuba administration as well. Since Deuba came to power in July, there have been several rounds of interactions between the two sides.
In early October, a special delegation of the ruling Nepali Congress led by its deputy general secretary and former foreign minister Prakash Sharan Mahat arrived in New Delhi and held meetings with External Affairs Minister Jaishankar and BJP president JP Nadda. The talks mainly focussed on ways to strengthen bilateral ties.
The visit came in the backdrop of the visit of Vijay Chauthaiwale, who heads the foreign affairs department of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to Kathmandu in August at the invitation of NC as part of Nepal’s efforts to enhance bilateral ties.
In September, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, Jaishankar met his new Nepalese counterpart Dr Narayan Khadka in New York and both agreed to work together closely to take the special relationship between the two countries forward.
In early November, on the sidelines of the UN conference on climate change in Glasgow, Prime Minister Modi met with Deuba for the first time after he became the premier of the Himalayan nation and had a ”productive discussion” on ways to further strengthen the close bilateral ties and combat climate change, Covid-19 and facilitate post-pandemic recovery.
The Ministry of External Affairs in a statement said both leaders discussed ways to further strengthen bilateral cooperation, including in the context of ongoing efforts against the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the same month, Nepal Army chief General Prabhu Ram Sharma embarked on a four-day visit to India to step up defence ties between the two neighbouring nations.
During his visit to New Delhi on the invitation of his Indian counterpart General Manoj Mukund Naravane, Sharma was conferred with the title of honorary ‘General of Indian Army’ by President Ram Nath Kovid.
The year 2021 also saw the United States enhancing its ties with Nepal against the backdrop of China stepping up its forays into the landlocked nation through various infrastructure ventures, including the trans-Himalayan connectivity projects, under Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
US Assistant Secretary of State, South and Central Asia, Donald Lu in November met Prime Minister Deuba at the latter’s residence and discussed various issues, including bilateral ties and post-pandemic recovery. In the same month, Deputy Assistant Secretary Kelly Keiderling also visited Kathmandu.
Lu and Keiderling’s visit come as the US and Nepal mark 75 years of diplomatic relations.
China launched the BRI in 2013 to fund infrastructure projects across the world, taking advantage of its USD 3.21 trillion forex reserves to further Beijing’s global influence.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also expressed hope to work closely with Foreign Minister Khadka, appointed in September, on matters of mutual interests.
On the India-Nepal bilateral front, the year 2021 ended with a positive note with Jaishankar in December announcing that the reconstruction of 50,000 houses, destroyed in the 2015 Nepal earthquake, in Gorkha and Nuwakot districts under Indian assistance has been completed.
Addressing the virtual International Conference on Nepal’s Reconstruction, Jaishankar underscored that India will always unhesitatingly step up to support the people of Nepal whenever called to do so.
”Our partnership also testifies to the durability and strength of the ties between our two great countries,” he said.
The political arena saw Nepal’s main opposition CPN-UML overwhelmingly re-electing former prime minister Oli, 70, as the chairman of the country’s largest Communist Party for the second time in November.
In December, five-time premier Deuba was re-elected as the president of the ruling Nepali Congress – the country’s largest democratic party – for a consecutive second four-year term after defeating his rival Shekhar Koirala in a run-off.