Nepal advanced one more step in its evolution as a modern democratic republic when on October 28 it elected its first Head of State under the recently promulgated Constitution. That the new President was a woman made the outcome doubly historic.
The victory of 54-year-old Bidhya Devi Bhandari, deputy leader of the ruling CPNUML (Communist Party of Nepal—Unified Marxist Leninist), in the parliamentary vote had been widely foreseen in view of the comfortable position her party enjoyed in the House. Mrs Bhandari got 327 votes, winning by a margin of 86 votes over her nearest rival, Kul Bahadur Gurung of the Nepali Congress. One is sure to find more women at the helm in Kathmandu in the years to come as the new Constitution provides for 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament.
Mrs Bhandari herself has been a party activist since early years. She was drawn into playing a larger role in the party following the death of her husband in a car accident in 1993, the circumstances of which have remained unexplained to this day. She also held the defence portfolio in the 2008 cabinet.
There used to be a time when the Nepali Congress had close fraternal relations with the Indian National Congress, the party then in power in New Delhi. But both the countries have since moved on. The current realities are that while Nepal has unambiguously moved to the Left, the ruling dispensation in New Delhi is positioned on the right.
But it is not the ideological orientation that is at issue here. In fact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had started with reaching out to its northern neighbour with who India has had the closest of relations. That makes the emergence of recent strains in the bilateral relationship a rather sad commentary on the way things have gone. It clearly shows that something has been amiss between formulation of policy in New Delhi and its implementation.
True, there is the issue of the representation of Madhesis and other minorities under the new constitutional dispensation. These are issues that the new government should address in its own longterm interest as it moves to turn Nepal into an equal and inclusive democracy. India should know that it can do only so much and in its eagerness to do good should avoid creating the impression of being seen as overbearing.
It should be seen as no coincidence that even as the Nepalese Parliament was going through the motions of electing a new President, the officials elsewhere in Kathmandu were busy inking an agreement with China providing for import of fuel from its northern neighbour.
The MoU signed between Nepal Oil Corporation and the State owned China National United Oil Corporation is supposed to provide Nepal an alternate source of supply of fuel. That spells a clear reflection on the so called blockade enacted during the recent Madhesi agitation when the supplies of petrol and other essential commodities were held up at the border for several weeks creating hardship conditions in Kathmandu valley and elsewhere in the country.
It will always make better economic and logistical sense that petrol (as also other essential commodities) should reach Nepal from India rather than across Tibet and the Himalayas. The point is not lost on the Nepalese either. “Our aim,” as Dilip Kumar Upadhyay, Nepal's Ambassador in New Delhi, remarked, “is to restore normal economic relationship with India. That is what will benefit the Nepali people in the long run. We should not take decisions on short-term calculations and ego.”
That is how it should be. Nepal's signing of the petrol agreement with China may be just a way of sounding a note of caution that New Delhi should not in any case fail to take note of. Geography, culture and now the institutions of democracy— bind the two countries together. And there is need to build on these rather than getting stuck on misperceptions of each other's intents and actions.