Indian Army chief MM Naravane pays a courtesy call on Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli

General Naravane’s visit can be helpful in resuming bilateral talks but more high-level political and diplomatic exchanges are a must for substantive results, analysts say

It was supposed to be a courtesy call. But the elephant in the room could not be ignored

Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, when Indian Army Chief General Manoj Mukunda Naravne called in at his official residence on Friday at the end of his three-day visit, communicated Nepal’s position on resolving the border dispute at Lipulekh, Limpyadhura and Kalapani.

“What we want from India to resolve the dispute figured in the meeting and was communicated accordingly,” said Rajan Bhattarai, foreign relations adviser to the prime minister.

“We need resumption of high level visits in different sectors since there was no communication for a year.”

During the hour-long courtesy call, Bhattarai along with Foreign Secretary Bharat Raj Poudyal, Chief of Army Staff General Purna Chandra Thapa and Yagya Bahadur Hamal, head of India Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, were also present.

According to Bhattarai, Oli told Naravane that any misunderstanding between Nepal and India can be resolved through talks.

General Thapa, during his meeting with Navarane, also communicated what Nepal wants from India. These include resumption of frequent high level visits and resolving the border dispute through talks, according to two officials privy to the discussions.

Following the publication of a map by India last November which showed the disputed area in northwest Nepal as Indian territory, relations between the countries had hit a low. Kathmandu’s requests to Delhi for diplomatic dialogue went unheard.

Then in May, the Indian government inaugurated a road link via Lipulekh to Kailash Mansarovar in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, which led to further souring of ties between Nepal and India.

In response, the Oli government unveiled Nepal’s new political map depicting Lipulekh as well as Kalapani and Limpiyadhura as parts of the Nepali territory. The new map was adopted through Parliament after amending the constitution. India objected to Nepal’s move. The two neighbours entered a state of cartographic war.

It was General Naravane who then added fuel to the fire by saying Nepal was acting at the behest of someone else. Though he did not name any country, he was alluding to China.

Because of his statement, a section of Nepalis was against Naravane’s visit to Kathmandu.

Naravane is the senior most Indian official to visit Nepal since the two countries were engaged in the boundary dispute. Navarnae arrived in Nepal on Wednesday. President Bidya Devi Bhandari conferred the title of honorary general of Nepal Army on Naravane on Thursday as part of a traditional exchange between the two countries.

Even though Naravane was appointed the Indian Army chief in December 2019, it took him 11 months to arrive in Kathmandu, unlike in the past when such visits would be within a few months of taking charge.

Naravane’s visit followed a trip by Samant Goel, the chief of India’s external intelligence agency, to Kathmandu last month and his meeting with Oli, which had created ripples among Nepali political and intelligentsia circles. Oli had met the three-member spy delegation alone, inviting criticism for not following diplomatic norms.

A senior official who was involved throughout Naravane’s visit said that the major takeaway is it will pave the way for high-level visits from both sides, which will be planned soon.

“At a time of the border issue between the two countries, the army can play a significant role and the visit by Indian Army chief can be viewed as a signal that India is not averse to discussing the issue,” another official who is familiar with the visit, told the Post.

In a statement on Friday, the Nepal Army said that Thapa and Naravane discussed the traditional bond of friendship between the two armies and concluded that the visit was successful in further strengthening the relationship.

Observers, however, said there was little substance in Naravane's visit.

Geja Sharma Wagle, who writes on strategic affairs for Kantipur, the Post’s sister paper, said that the Indian Army chief’s visit has been more ritual, ceremonial and symbolic than substantive.

“It has conveyed a positive and symbolic diplomatic gesture of India in the aftermath of the diplomatic debacle between Nepal and India over their maps,” said Wagle. “Hopefully, it will contribute to creating a conducive environment that will ultimately pave the way for a formal and high-level diplomatic dialogue.”

According to Wagle, Nepal should focus on high-level political and diplomatic talks to resolve sensitive issues related to the territory and border, instead of holding talks with India’s army and the Research & Analysis Wing.

“Neither the army nor RAW has the mandate to discuss such issues,” Wagle told the Post. “Nor can they take any decisions on the matter except conveying messages to their political masters.”

There is discontent also within the ruling party as sections of its leaders have expressed displeasure at the way Oli is conducting foreign policy and diplomacy.

“Time has come to democratise our foreign policy because foreign policy warrants a certain degree of democratic elements which the Oli government has failed to ensure,” said Deepak Prakash Bhatta, a ruling party lawmaker and member of the parliamentary International and Human Rights Committee.

“We have to add security and strategic components to our foreign policy conduct but we have failed to institutionalise our foreign policy as a result of which we keep on facing dilemmas time and again.”