Nepalese Prime Minister, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, will be in India from May 31 to June 3 with a large entourage of ministers and officials to discuss a variety of matters, some old, some new, some routine, some contentious.

Dahal had told the Nepalese media that it would be a “historic” visit. “I am confident that history will be created in my visit. I am setting out with this confidence. Our relationship with India is unique due to an open border; economic, political and social relations; and people-to-people contact. This kind of relationship cannot be found elsewhere,” he said.

But those who had been in power in Kathmandu, and those familiar with the vicissitudes of Nepal-India relations, wonder if Dahal’s expectation is well-founded.

Dahal’s visit is unlikely to be a walk in the park given the following realities: Nepal has a propensity to knock at China’s door for help to counterbalance India’s power and Beijing is eager to expand its footprint in the Himalayan State. Above all, New Delhi has a new sense of power and destiny bestowed by Narendra Modi’s recent successes in global affairs.

Given his fragile position in Nepalese politics, and the growing power of India in the region and beyond, Dahal needs India more than India needs Dahal.

Dahal is caught in a cleft stick between a resurgent and increasingly aggressive India and a fiercely competitive domestic politics and a pushy China looming across the Northern border. The Nepalese opposition, especially the K.P.Oli-led Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist Leninist), wants Dahal to take up all the contentious issues including claims over territories.

“I advise the prime minister not to be cowardly during the India visit,” Oli said. “This government does not know whether Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura fall in Nepal. The government has failed to incorporate the new map of Nepal in its policies and programs. I advise the Prime Minister to speak frankly with the Indian leaders.”

However, saner elements either want Dahal to go step by step or look at the future rather than get stuck in the quagmires of the past.

“The Indian perspective is guided by the present context and future requirements,” former Foreign Minister Ramesh Nath Pandey told the ‘Kathmandu Post’. “But Nepal wants to dwell in the past. We are talking about replacing the 1950 peace and friendship treaty and receiving the report of the Eminent Persons’ Group (EPG). But is the EPG report a magic stick that will resolve all differences between us?” Pandey asked.

Dahal wanted his Delhi-agenda to have an all-party backing. He consulted former Prime Ministers including Sher Bahadur Deuba, K.P. Oli, Jhala Nath Khanal and Baburam Bhattarai. Former foreign ministers and ambassadors to India were also included in the consultations. Dahal assured that he would act according to the suggestions given by these leaders and experts.

To add to Kathmandu’s problems, the powers-that-be in New Delhi are aware that Nepalese politics is unpredictable and Dahal is not in a strong position. That could militate against giving any concessions that might be detrimental to India in the long run.

However, a slew of agreements are lined up after formal talks on June 1. Crucial agreements on cross-border energy cooperation and trade are expected. Agreements on a common digital payment platform; construction of a dry port in the Chandani-Dodhara in Nepal; inauguration of integrated check posts in Nepalgunj and setting up a new integrated check post in Bhairahawa are on the cards.

Also on the agenda are the inauguration of the rail yard in Biratnagar; construction and extension of two petroleum pipelines; allowing the broadcast of Nepal Television in India; energy trading between Nepal and Bangladesh via India; and an agreement on electricity trading between two state-owned agencies for 25 years so as to avoid frequent approvals. Chemical fertiliser supply to Nepal is another possible item of discussion. Though the recent talks between officials did not yield results on the air entry route, Nepal is hopeful that India will provide a route via Nepalgunj.

While these non-controversial issues have a good chance of being settled amicably, Dahal is under domestic pressure to take up some prickly issues like Nepal’s claim over Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura that are claimed by India too. When K. P. Oli was PM, he upped the ante by incorporating these areas in an official map of Nepal, raising the hackles in New Delhi, especially because it suspected China’s instigation.

Rivers like Mahakali, Karnali, Sapt Gandak and Sapt Kosi originate in the trans-Himalayan region, cross Nepal and flow southwards to join the Ganges in India. According to the ‘Indian Defence Review’, Nepal contributes 45% to the average annual flow to these rivers but occupies only 13% of the total drainage. Nepal wants this situation changed, but it is not easy for India to give up its gains.

The Nepalese “have build-up the perception that India, as a hegemonic power; is unilaterally managing the development of water resources and subsequently controlling their maintenance and operations,” the journal adds.

There is also a Nepalese demand for a revision of the 1950 India-Nepal treaty which gives India and Nepal special privileges in each other’s territory. Nepal has been feeling that the 1950 treaty is weighted in favour of India and needs to be re-negotiated. But India is wary about changes especially with the threat from China looming large on the horizon.

New Delhi is also avoiding the report of the joint Eminent Persons Group (EPG) that was finalised in 2018. Nepal is reluctant to move on the report without first getting feedback from India. There is thus a stalemate. Current indications are that New Delhi might not like to break the ice on the report before it is sure that it will not harm its core interests in strategic, security, economic and geopolitical terms.

The Agnipath scheme for fresh Indian military recruits is as controversial in Nepal as it is in India. Nepal supplies Gurkhas to the Indian army in substantial numbers. Many Nepalese families depend on recruitment to the Indian army. But under the Agnipath scheme, 75% of the recruits (whether Indian or Nepalese) will be discharged with a one-time payout but no pension at the end of four years. The prospect of unemployment after four years is daunting for rural youth in both countries. Nepal is seeking exemption for Nepalese Gurkhas from the scheme.

Nepal’s fractious and fragile democracy has opened the doors to interference from both India and China. In 2022, the Chinese Ambassador, Ms.Hou Yangi, helped the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) of K P Sharma Oli and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center) led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal come together. In 2015-16, China helped Oli counter the challenge from the pro-Indian Nepali Congress and the Madheshi parties (parties of the people of Indian origin). The economic blockade organised by the Madheshi parties in the Terai region, with India’s tacit support, pushed Oli into the arms of China.

During Xi Jinping’ visit to Nepal in 2019, Sino-Nepal relations were transformed into a strategic partnership. Many agreements covering spheres such as transport, agriculture, and industry, were signed. Xi Jinping offered Nepalese Rupees 56 billion for development projects.

Nepal became a signatory to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI projects included the Kerung-Kathmandu railway. This raised the hackles in New Delhi as it is planned to extend it to the India-Nepal border. The Chinese could use this rail link to push their goods into India.

India is willing to buy power from Nepal only if the power plant in Nepal is not Chinese built. India is also worried about Nepal’s being a cockpit for Pakistani terrorist intrigues against India. There is a suspicion that Nepal is used by Pakistani terror groups as a conduit to smuggle fake currency and drugs into India. Indeed, India-Nepal relations are among the most complicated in South Asia.