Foreign secretary (FS) Harsh Vardhan Shringla has an old Nepal connection. He is a Nepali language speaker and has served in the northern division (handling Nepal and Bhutan) of the ministry of external affairs as a director. In addition, having been a joint secretary handling other neighbours such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Myanmar, he is also familiar with how domestic political dynamics in smaller South Asian countries collide with regional geopolitics. And that is why the FS’s visit to Nepal, starting on Thursday, is an important moment to reset bilateral ties.
The FS will need to navigate four challenges. One, while keeping up protocol and respecting Nepali sensitivities, he must get a feel of the complicated internal dynamics within Nepal, where Prime Minister KP Oli’s position is both strong (he has control over State institutions) and weak (he faces intra-party rebellion). This will entail listening to leaders across the spectrum, in particular older allies, about their objectives. Two, while respecting Nepal’s sovereign right to pursue ties with China, he must, privately, make Indian redlines clear and warn that if these are crossed, Delhi will have to reconsider its approach. Three, he must — in his public statements — reach out to all stakeholders, perhaps with a Nepali-language address to Kathmandu’s political and opinion-making elite and a special gesture of support to marginalised social groups in the Tarai, reiterating India’s support for the principle of inclusion. And finally, at a time when there remains an effort to challenge the progressive political transformation of 2006, Mr Shringla should make it clear that New Delhi stands by a federal, democratic, republican, and secular Nepal.