Indian Ambassador to Nepal Manjeev Singh Puri is returning home from Kathmandu next week, and he will be retiring from Indian Foreign Service as well. Puri was largely seen as an important figure in helping improve Nepal-India ties. What impressions has he had in nearly three years in Nepal as ambassador of India? Subhash Ghimire and Mahabir Paudyal met him to discuss various aspects of Nepal-India relations. Excerpts: What were your expectations when you came as ambassador to Nepal?
I did not interact much with the media when I came here in 2017 because I came to Nepal as an Indian diplomat who served elsewhere in the world but not in South Asia. So what would I say about expectations? I came here as a proud Indian diplomat to serve in the country with which India has had the closest of the relations. I learnt everything about Nepal on the job. Let me begin with the beginning.
I came in March 2017 when the elections were happening at local levels. I understand the fervor and importance of elections in the society. And I saw it unfolding within the six or seven months of my being in Nepal. After some 20 odd years, elections were being held here for local bodies. It really befuddled me that some 750 odd local bodies were elected and some 10,000 plus people were elected as members of important local bodies. They had actually been devolved powers which were quite substantial. More interestingly, in many countries in the world local bodies are called just local bodies. Nepal went a step forward and said they are the local governments. The moment you add the word ‘government’ it adds a certain kind of legalese and power play in the game. We have local bodies in every country including in India. In Nepal, around 10,000 people were being fairly empowered directly under the constitution. That was a great experience.
What did you actually see?
I saw hugely participated elections, large turnouts and heavy contestations. It occurred to me that people’s last recollections of local elections were from 20 years back. Then it was hardly a contested election. To become a ward chairman was a big thing because it meant that you were going to be empowered by the people. Then you started the process for the elections of provincial and federal assemblies. It was a challenging political set up. Many people may have had their own views but I found it so engaging and liked the whole idea of the way Nepal was engaged with the process.
Nepal conducted the local elections in three phases and there were good reasons behind that. But it was done in a celebratory manner. And we saw the celebration of democracy. This was my opening gambit. That’s why I consider that these are the big achievements of Nepal.
How do you assess the India-Nepal during your tenure here?
These almost three years of my ambassadorship have actually been the times of action in Nepal-India relations. By action, I mean the real work. I am pleased that there were four prime ministerial level visits between India and Nepal. Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to Nepal two times during my tenure. Prime Minister K P Oli visited India twice. President Bidya Devi Bhandari also visited India. That’s political level dialogue and understanding. In the same way, we were able to carry forth partnership in a really big way.
In my opinion, Arun III is one of those things which has the game-changing potential. It was stuck for years. Arun III means that this is the third iteration of the same project. Now we have taken it forward. PM Oli and PM Modi laid the foundation stone and in a few years time when it comes to operation, it will produce as much electric power as is produced in Nepal today. Look at the cash fusion to the economy it will generate. The second is the petroleum pipeline. For years, we were discussing that we should have a pipeline but it had not materialized. The pipeline cuts down the vehicular and pollution traffic in that entire area all the way to Amlekhgunj. It eases the possibility of doing business and then it cuts short the distribution of petroleum products in Nepal by many days. You can decide where you have to send the product—whether to TIA or elsewhere. I mention TIA because there is a story. In 2017, when the local elections were being held, the two sides agreed that the elections are taking place and therefore vehicular movement across the border should be stopped for a couple of days. There is such practice when elections are happening in India or in Nepal. So we did the same. But TIA came so close to leaning down on fuel because it takes three to four days for the truck with aviation turbine fuel to start from the refinery in India to Kathmandu, discharge the cargo and deliver the goods. There is a cycle of three to four days. When we open the pipeline the supplies could be normalized. This is why I call it a project in action. Then there is an integrated check post. When we move these kinds of things, I honestly believe that we do things which impact not just today but also tomorrow in a positive manner, in the direction in which the contemporary world is moving. That’s what I feel most satisfied with. In the two and a half years I have served in Nepal, we actually strengthened those links and those institutional arrangements which will benefit the people and economy in both sides. And this will have lasting impact.
When you interact with political leaders in Nepal what is the sense you get in terms of Nepal-India relations?
I have always had positive interactions with the leaders. My understanding of all the leaders across the political parties is that every one of them, in his/her own way, strives to better the relations. All of them make efforts. In India, there is a swell of friendliness toward Nepal. From a political leader to a commoner, everyone in India would like to contribute to bettering relations with Nepal. I get the same kind of feeling among political leaders here.
If we have been able to push these projects, it is because right across the political spectrum in Nepal, there is an understanding that they want to take things forward in a meaningful manner. Like it or not, geography is such it favors India-Nepal interactions. If you leverage geography, both countries will benefit. It is a win-win for both sides.
There does not seem to be any progress on taking measures to resolve border issues with Nepal’s Kalapani. The government of Nepal has sent a note but India apparently has not responded. Why this indifference?
These are old issues. We are civilizationally linked since time immemorial. I have no doubt that discussions and conversations find ways forward in everything, no matter how intractable. We have set the precedent by resolving such issues too. We used to think of 1800 odd kilometers border, which we inherited in legacy, only as natural boundary based on rivers. Every now and then there would be one issue or the other. There would be a shift in river course and this would create controversy and so on. Ten years ago, the two governments took the decision that it would go for fixed point boundary. And they did it. Ninety percent of India-Nepal boundary has been demarcated and strip-mapped. That was the huge decision the two governments and two peoples had taken.
The point I am making is that there is nothing that cannot be done in terms of mutual consultations and dialogues. If they can do something as big as that on borders, we can do everything that we wish to. Nepal and India are the countries engaged in dialogue. Nepali side has sent the proposal. Reply will come and things will move forward.
How have you been reading the rhetoric coming from various political parties on Kalapani issue?
Rhetoric is a cause of worry. It raises the temperature and tries to bring about schisms which do not exist and therefore it needs to be controlled. I would like all these issues to be discussed in an atmosphere looking for way forward and finding answers.
Let me add that there have been several such issues between India and Nepal in which you have disagreements but then in all such issues discussions have happened and actions have been initiated. You only have to wait. There will certainly be a response from Indian side. Governments keep communicating. But it’s not like you get the response today or tomorrow. There are processes and channels involved.
Chinese president visited Nepal in October and there have been talks of railway project connecting China, Nepal and India. How do you see this dynamics of Nepal-China-India relations?
It’s not for me to comment on Nepal’s relations with third countries. That would not be fair and correct on my part. I can talk about Nepal-India relations. We all know that Nepal-India relations are based on positive geography. Making our connectivity contemporarily valid, economically viable and the one that adds to the situation as it exists today is an absolute priority. I mentioned the oil pipeline and integrated check posts earlier. Rail connectivity is equally important and we are doing this in four or five places. We are upgrading Janakpur line to broad-gauge railway from Jayanagar in India all the way to Bardibas. We are working on train connectivity in Nepalgunj and Sunauli, Kakarvitta, Jogbani and Biratnagar. Very soon their operationalization will also follow. Connectivity is important. PM Oli’s vision was we should look at faster and direct train connectivity between Kathmandu and Raxaul. It was never attempted in history and it appears that it was not attempted because of challenging geography. But today technology has become so much better. So I can tell you that preliminary survey was carried out for Raxaul-Kathmandu line. The next serious survey will be carried out soon and then the project will go forward. This is one of the flagship projects which the two PMs spoke of and agreed upon. I have a firm belief that when this project comes to fruition, it will lead to tremendous ease of connectivity for people in the Kathmandu Valley and opens access to the whole of India. We normally do not tend to talk about things which are simple and which are about people. In my two and a half years, I have seen that road connectivity has improved tremendously in Nepal. Today, we have direct bus services from Nepal to India. And these are first rate bus services, with air conditioning, wi-fi services and reclining seats. These are all fascinating developments.
There is an understanding in Kathmandu that interests of the Western powers and that of China have sharply increased in recent years. What is your reading?
Like I said, I cannot comment on Nepal’s relations with other countries. But I can say that Nepal has hugely benefited from globalization. I believe that in Nepal, in my country and elsewhere, we tend to take our achievements for granted. But if you sit back and make an analysis, you will see that one of the biggest changes that has come over in Nepal in the last 20 years is Nepal is becoming a huge part of globalization. Let us take a cut off year like 1990 or 1980. How many Nepali people were travelling to countries apart from India? How many people were travelling to far-flung distant lands? How many Nepali communities were there in the US, Australia and the UK?
How many dreamt of going to Japan and Korea? How many had thought that they would be going to Gulf or the Middle East for jobs? Nepal has hugely benefited from globalization.
That said, globalization also brings, along with it, some challenges. There are global, regional and bilateral issues for Nepal to handle. But Nepal is well positioned to handle them properly. We must take advantage of what comes best and easiest. Take advantage of geography because it is easiest to leverage. As India grows to five trillion dollar economy, no other society and no other economy can take advantage of us as well as Nepal simply because Nepali business and Nepali societies know India better. When people from Nepal join companies in India, our companies are enriched. When people from Nepal invest in India we benefit. When people from India come and invest in Nepal you benefit. This is something we have inherited. If we can tap into this legacy, the benefits will be tremendous for everyone.
That’s a very optimistic picture but Indian economy is cooling off at the moment.
I think Nepal need not worry too much about it. It is a matter which our government is concerned about. We need to grow as fast as we can. The government is taking many steps in that direction. Cumulatively, our growth has been tremendous. There are some dips, mostly caused as a result of global actions. And we are not immune from global system. As for Nepal, you are a massively growing economy and you need to take this growth forward.
There have been widespread protests across India against the Citizenship Amendment Bill. How do you look at this?
India is a mature democracy. All these bills are passed after robust debate in our parliament. Some people have their own views and there are expressions of those views. Also remember that we have a very robust judicial system. There are checks and balances. This will happen in this case and in every other case. I believe that what gets decided in the Indian parliament and what meets the test of judiciary is what the people of India want.
You visited different parts of Nepal. What impressions are you taking back home? Where do you see Nepal ten years down the line?
Nepal is not a small country. Actually it is a very big country by global standards. I travelled from north-east to north-west and south-east to south-west of Nepal. It’s been a wonderful experience being here. I see that in ten years time, Nepal will take a great leap. The vision you have for graduating to middle-income country will materialize. There will be massive developments of infrastructure, especially in hydropower. Once you have one or two breakthroughs, people will see its benefit. Road networks will be strengthened and once this happens, Nepal will immensely benefit. Just think about it. When the East-West Highway, Tribhuvan Highway and other roads were built what were the impacts? Fifty years later, they are the strong lifelines for Nepal. I understand all the teething troubles. I come from a country where we have gone through every single one of them. And we are constantly going through them because we are a democracy. In democracies, all voices usually do not come on board on any subject. There are interests, vested and otherwise and influences. Many things happen and you have to work with all of these. Therefore, it takes a little bit of time but there is a greater solidarity to what you achieve at the end of the day. In Nepal, that crucible has happened and you are at the cusp of making achievements. But like I said, you have to leverage your geography. Nepal has done well on digital connectivity. You have done very well in the last 15 years. Political stability has come. Next round has got to be the economic development. ‘Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepali’ must happen. Karnahi padega (you have to materialize it).