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27 February 2024

Nepal's new prime minister makes first foreign visit to India

Nepali Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli (C) shakes hands with Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh (R) upon his arrival at the Indira Gandhi international airport in New Delhi. (AFP)


Nepal's new Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli left for India Friday on the first foreign visit of his latest term, a trip which analysts say signals a possible reset of strained relations.

During the three-day visit Oli will meet his counterpart Narendra Modi, and possible deals on the use of Indian waterways by landlocked Nepal as well as an expansion of an India-backed railway to Kathmandu have been mooted.

Nepal's prime minister is also expected to push for India to complete previously promised infrastructure projects, many of which have limped along for decades and are key to Oli's ambitious plans to kickstart moribund growth at home.

Relations soured during Oli's last term in office in 2015 after deadly protests in southern Nepal over a controversial new constitution that led to a blockade of the border with India.

The months-long shutdown caused a severe shortage of goods, including fuel and medicine, at a time when Nepal was still reeling from a devesting earthquake early that year.

Oli blamed the blockade on interference by Delhi and tilted Nepal's diplomatic relations towards China, stoking nationalistic sentiment.

The Communist leader returned to power in February after his party, together with a bloc of Maoist former rebels, won a thumping two-thirds parliamentary majority in elections late last year.

Oli has since signalled he will take a less antagonistic approach towards India, which is Nepal's largest trading partner.

Delhi - which has historically acted as big brother to its small northern neighbour - has similarly been on a charm offensive, alarmed by Beijing's growing influence over Kathmandu.

Nepal in May last year signed up to China's ambitious One Belt, One Road initiative, a massive infrastructure drive at the centre of the Asian giant's push to expand its global influence.

Beijing is the single largest donor to Nepal's reconstruction effort following the earthquake three years ago and has also invested heavily in much-needed infrastructure projects, particularly in hydropower, in the impoverished Himalayan nation.

Addressing parliament before the visit, Oli said his goal was to "create a balanced, reliable, friendly and cordial atmosphere" with both India and China.

"Enhancing just relations with the neighbours on the basis of non-interference... and mutual interest is the starting point," he said in a nod to his nationalistic base.

Akhilesh Upadhayay, editor-in-chief of The Kathmandu Post newspaper, said the visit suggested a "shift in the dynamics" between the neighbours.

"Nepal has never had a government this strong. This is a prime minister with extremely strong support," he said.

"It is certainly about resetting relations. This visit is as important for India as it is for Nepal, perhaps even more.

"It an opportunity for them to offset old mistakes and re-establish trust. It is an effort by India to reach out to Nepal."