Nepal foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali arrived in the Indian capital on Thursday for a two-day visit expected to focus on procuring Covid-19 vaccines and development cooperation, though Kathmandu has also signalled its intent to raise the border row.
Gyawali will meet his Indian counterpart S Jaishankar for talks on Friday, and the two ministers will chair a meeting of the bilateral joint commission. This will be only the sixth meeting of the body since 1987, though it has convened four times since 2014. Gyawali was also set to hold several private meetings on Thursday.
The minister is the most senior Nepalese leader to visit India in more than a year after the Covid-19 outbreak. He is also the first leader to visit New Delhi since Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli triggered political turmoil by dissolving Parliament last month and calling early elections in April-May.
Gyawali’s delegation includes both the foreign secretary and health secretary, reflecting the focus on Covid-19 cooperation. Though Nepal has formally reached out to India and China for vaccines, Kathmandu has indicated a preference for sourcing doses from New Delhi because of factors such as pricing, logistics and well-established links between the health sectors of the two countries.
People familiar with developments said on condition of anonymity that Nepal is hoping India will provide vaccines as assistance to inoculate a part of the 12 million population it plans to cover in its first phase of vaccinations. Nepal also plans to buy millions of doses from foreign suppliers, including the Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech.
The Indian side has said the country’s ability to export vaccines after meeting domestic needs will become clear over the next few weeks. Officials have also said India’s neighbours will get priority for the supply of vaccines.
India-Nepal ties came under the shadow of a border row last year after Oli’s government issued a new political map that included Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Lipulekh, which are part of Indian territory. The map was published in response to India’s opening of a strategic road to Lipulekh, located on the border with China.
In a statement announcing Gyawali’s visit on Tuesday, Nepal’s foreign ministry said the joint commission meeting will discuss the gamut of bilateral relations, including “trade, transit, energy, boundary, Covid-19 cooperation, infrastructure, connectivity, investment, agriculture, tourism, culture, among others”.
The people cited above said India had made its position on the border row very clear – the external affairs ministry last year described Nepal’s new map as “unjustified cartographic assertion” – and the stance hadn’t changed. They added the focus of the upcoming meeting will be taking forward development cooperation, including India-backed projects in Nepal.
Given that Oli currently heads a caretaker government, there is unlikely to be any substantive movement on the border issue, the people said. One option the two sides could look at is asking the bilateral boundary working group to look afresh at the border issue to help finalise the border in the disputed sections at Kalapani and Susta, the people added.
Before Oli’s sudden decision to dissolve Parliament, normalcy was restored in bilateral ties by back-to-back visits to Kathmandu last year by Research and Analysis Wing chief Samant Goel, Indian Army chief Gen MM Naravane and foreign secretary Harsh Shringla.
Gyawali is also expected to brief the Indian side on the political developments in Nepal. India has been keeping a wary eye on China’s efforts to broker an understanding between Oli and his main rival, Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda”, in order to keep the Nepal Communist Party united.