India is at last showing a measure of urgency in strengthening its railway links with neighbouring Nepal. Starting this December, a passenger train service will connect Jayanagr in Bihar with Kurtha in south-eastern Nepal, a distance of 34 kilometres. The cost of the project is Rs. 5.5 billion. This is in addition to plans to link Kathmandu with Raxaul in Bihar, decided in principle earlier between the two governments.
When it comes to firming up historical links with Nepal, Delhi should have been miles ahead of Beijing. The spiritual, cultural, religious, economic and political links between the two neighbours could not be closer. As observers have noted, no other country in the world in many respects resembles India more than Nepal does. Yet, bilateral relations between the two currently remain somewhat uneasy as both countries feel that certain unfinished business must be settled first.
The trouble began with the massive earthquake in Nepal in 2015. Much of the country was laid to waste. The great reconstruction still continues several years after. India moved in with aid but the over-eagerness and big brotherly behaviour of some officials offended Nepalese sentiments even at the hour of crisis. Kathmandu appealed publicly to India not to supervise local relief operations. Observers put this down to the generally assertive behaviour of some of India’s top policymakers’ post 2014, whose swaggering approach deeply offended the common people. Nepal’s experience was typical, not exceptional.
Enter China from the north, assuring emergency supplies through Tibet. Later supplies also resumed from India, but the damage had been done. Despite a visit by Nepalese Prime minister KP Sharma Oli and Sushma Swaraj’s trips to Delhi and Kathmandu, the old bonhomie was missing. The simplest of gestures and its timely, unconditional assistance during Nepal’s hour of need ensured a major diplomatic advance for China, while India squandered most of its built-in advantage.
The other factor that keeps China ahead is the speedy implementation of agreements with other countries. As soon as Nepal agreed to join China’s ambitious one-belt-one-road project, by agreeing to link Kathmandu by rail to Lhasa in Tibet, Beijing announced plans to complete the project and make it operational by 2020.
Not to be left behind, India played catch-up. It also agreed to prioritise work on the proposed link between Raxaul in Bihar and Kathmandu.
The difference is that when the Nepal PM sought a timeline from India about completing the linkage, Delhi could only confirm that the preliminary survey itself would be completed by 2019, without specifying how long it would take to make the line operational.
Now it appears that all troubles are over. The latest developments can safely be termed a new beginning of Indo-Nepal relations. One can only hope that in the future India will show the same degree of maturity when dealing with neighbours.