Wednesday, March 29, 2023
HomeOpinionGlobal PrintWhy NSA Doval and his men are asserting themselves in Nepal, rather...

Why NSA Doval and his men are asserting themselves in Nepal, rather than MEA

PM Modi wants relationship with Nepal fixed. So R&AW chief Samant Goel and his team boarded a special aircraft to the Himalayan republic.

Text Size:

The US and India are “seizing the moment” with the 2+2 dialogue between their external affairs and defence ministers in the hope that the growing partnership will outlast a possible change in the US administration next week. But back here in South Asia, a visit by the head of India’s external intelligence agency, R&AW, to meet Prime Minister K.P. Oli of Nepal last week tells us interesting new things.

First things first, the person picked to break the ice with Nepal since the political row over Nepal’s map was the head of Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) — and not a political person. This speaks reams of the foreign policy power structure in New Delhi. Increasingly, it seems as if National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and his secretariat are asserting themselves in India’s neighbourhood, leaving large parts of the rest of the world – the US, for example, and therefore the 2+2 dialogue – to the responsibility of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).

Remember that India’s most difficult foreign policy question, the unsettled border with China, is run by Doval, who is India’s Special Representative on the boundary talks – although, on China’s side, foreign minister Wang Yi is his interlocutor.

Also read: Nepalese PM Oli faces flak for ‘not visible’ Indian areas in ‘tiny’ Dussehra greeting map

India’s flip-flops on Nepal

Interestingly, R&AW seems to have quite a few Nepal specialists. So, along with chief Samant Goel on the Nepal trip was Arun Jain, earlier posted there as an intelligence officer. In the MEA, however, several Nepal hands have moved on. Slowly, Vinay Kwatra, India’s newest ambassador to the Himalayan republic, who knows Modi better than most diplomats having served as his unofficial interpreter in the early years, is getting to know this hugely complex and multi-layered country. He is now believed to be meeting all the players, who his predecessor had pointedly ignored.

It’s not been easy. The last several years have been shaped by one folly or another. First, New Delhi decided to support the Madhesis in their fight towards egalitarianism, which led to the informal blockade of goods, thereby upsetting the Kathmandu elite. When then-Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar visited Nepal at the time, seeking to broadbase the Constitution, he was roundly snubbed, including by the erstwhile pro-India president Ram Baran Yadav. Oli went on to decisively win the elections on an anti-India platform.

Alongside, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) tried to run the Nepal policy, because the country remains a Hindu-majority republic, but it soon burnt its fingers too. After the 2017 election in Nepal, New Delhi swallowed its pride and reached out to Oli – but tilted so much in his direction that it forgot that in a democracy other key players co-exist and play equally important, balancing roles.

So the Nepali Congress – whose early democratic aspirations were forged in the hot plains of India – as well as the Madhesi leaders, who until recently had been the darlings of Delhi, were pretty much ignored. Calls weren’t returned. Old friends first turned indifferent, then hostile. Oli, of course, was not above manipulating New Delhi.

Meanwhile, in the flush of its romance with Donald Trump in the US, roller-coaster ties with China and the race to the bottom with the Pakistan relationship — India, sort of, forgot Nepal. India’s diplomats have become so used to being feted in Western capitals or enjoy its cushy comforts, that prickly nations like Nepal are almost shunned.

That, of course, suited the Chinese just fine. As China’s ambassador Hou Yanqi feted the Kathmandu elite, India stared at the vast abyss of lost ground. And when the Chinese made aggressive moves into Ladakh, Army chief M.M. Naravane responded with an undiplomatic statement of his own.

Also read: R&AW chief on hurricane tour to Nepal, to meet PM Oli as trouble brews in ruling party

Why the R&AW chief?

It is in this context of India trying to make amends that the Samant Goel visit to Nepal should be seen. Nevertheless, the question remains: Why was Goel picked to go to Nepal and not a political personality? If Jaishankar was busy with 2+2 and China, couldn’t someone else be sent? There’s an entire Cabinet of options.

The circumstances of Goel’s visit are equally intriguing. The man took an Indian Air Force special aircraft to Kathmandu, an unsual act bound to attract notice. Then there was that splashy, public landing in the broad light of day at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan airport, in full glare of Nepal’s intrepid reporters.

It’s not as if R&AW chiefs have never taken special aircraft to Kathmandu, or that they haven’t met its top political leadership not accompanied by the ambassador – remember, Vinay Kwatra was in Delhi when Goel was in Kathmandu, preparing the Army chief for his own November visit to Kathmandu, where he will be honoured with the rank of General in the Nepal army. When a R&AW chief wants to do anything secretly, let’s be clear, he isn’t leaving a trail of crumbs in his wake.

Of course, the story got leaked. Probably someone wanted the story leaked, so as to send several messages, to Oli, the Nepali political elite and opposition as well as to the foreign policy elite back home in India.

Also read: New Delhi must warn Oli govt. Allowing China to use Nepal for anti-India activities has costs

A message to Nepal

The message to Oli is that New Delhi is well aware of his attempts to fan anti-India rhetoric by unilaterally redrawing an international map that expands Nepal’s borders into Indian territory. The message is also that India is not going to accept the move, even if the Chinese fete him or anyone else all the way to Beijing.

Goel’s meeting with Baburam Bhattarai is a second message to Oli – no one should forget that Bhattarai, a former JNU student and avowed Communist, lived incognito in Delhi for many years until the repressive monarchy in Nepal gave way to the Jan Andolan in 2006 and he returned home a victor.

The message to the Indian foreign policy establishment is that NSA Doval is in charge. That PM Modi wants the Nepal relationship fixed, so Doval and his boys are rising to the occasion.

But let’s stop here and smell the coffee. All of the above may read very well in spy thrillers, except for one small fact: India’s very public move of showing the mirror to Oli can backfire. The Nepal PM has given himself several leases of life by successfully playing the anti-India card, but at the same time publicly greeting PM Modi on Independence Day and most recently on Dussehra with a greeting card that did not have the new map printed on it.

If the Samant Goel trip succeeds, then NSA Doval would have pulled off a risky manoeuvre. If not, New Delhi would do well to dwell, as winter closes in, on why it’s losing its neighbourhood. One aggressive neighbour (China) has taken territory, another (Pakistan) continues with its proxy war, a third (Bangladesh) is upset with the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and a fourth (Nepal) is playing the Indian establishment like a tanpura.

Soon, spring will come. Soon, like Bihar, which is next door to Nepal, America will have a new administration. Question is, does India have a plan?

Views are personal.

This article has been updated to correct the news about the R&AW chief meeting Nepal’s opposition leader Baburam Bhattarai.

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Support Our Journalism

India needs fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism, packed with on-ground reporting. ThePrint – with exceptional reporters, columnists and editors – is doing just that.

Sustaining this needs support from wonderful readers like you.

Whether you live in India or overseas, you can take a paid subscription by clicking here.

Support Our Journalism


  1. India with strong ties with common citizen of Nepal can only make our eternal relationship go in harmony. Nepal is a small country with minor problems with india . India should rethink how to align Nepalese heart and mind in greater goal for its comon people.

  2. It’s known to everybody that each and every activity going in Nepal definitely has a RAW hand in it. Recent visit was to destabilize the government as madhab and prachanda are not happy, they are making fuss of small things. Gotal wanted to topple the government

  3. Of late neighbouring countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka flip flop statements on India’s diplomatic approach reveals our big brother attitudes not welcome by them. Both deliberately wooing India and our formidable enemy in tender hooks to achieve their goals. Recent secret visit of RAW Chief backfired is we known fact. Right from the days of Late Sushmaji MEA not given importance considering Modi unscheduled visit to Pakistan to greet Narasimhan sherlock his birthday kept MEA in dark lack of delegation of power.

  4. India’s plan should to become a much bigger economy and become a bigger importer of neighbors goods.

  5. All indian TV channels are again banned in Nepal from the day of Goel’s visit. This time DD National is also banned. This clearly shows his visit had negative impact in Nepal.

  6. All indian TV channels are again banned in Nepal from the day of Goel’s visit. This time DD National is also banned. This clearly shows his visit had negative impact in Nepal.

  7. why US is mentioned in between this article or relation between nepal and india ? are the reporters asleep ? the petrodollar is already dead the insignificance of the united states shows this…

  8. Fakir :Of course we have a plan…pls dial godi
    Godi: hello? ….Supreme leader! Pls tell us

    Next day
    Godi: Nehru, Rahul Gandhi, Antonia Maino has secret meeting with China, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to bring down Fakir and Yogi since 2014……

    • Seven years after BJP came to power leftist media continue to make false accusations against GOI.
      Godhi media is available, almost 70 percent on the 10JP & Yechury side, blindly theirs. Wont question Congress at all, will falsely attack a hard working &honest party.
      You must carry on Blindly, yes BLINDLY, every spin-doctored news that is fed to you baby boy, blindly.

  9. This article is again entirely in Jyoti style!!! Anything is linked to anything and Jyoti reaches her conclusions easily.
    Shekhar ought to edit her articles before they are published. One can’t say more than this….

  10. Times r changing fast…nobody has turned in our neighbourhood..everything is stable.
    nepal is a small hiccup..wc is bieng managed…
    Information needs to b processed into tangible intelligence…the info based on which …u talk about ..
    is intangible..speculation on gossip info is pointless…u need to b more aware…of the info frm ur sources..and connect the dots properly…how can u misread BNG so for PAK…less said the better ..what frm its current status..PDM..bombings..GB protests…etc …SL is not going anywre…it may trade wt china..but wre security is concerned it is firmly in india’s arc….so is maldives ..and myanmar…AFG (power centre) is still india centric even wt its myriad issues…and bhutan is still “happy” wt us….malasia has toned down the anti india stance aftr mahathir’s exit..indonesia and vietnam r firmly wt us..PH is also india +ve….cambodia is the exception …
    Make no mistake..china is going to ve problems….our policy towards china is “slowly” unfolding….
    We r not going to make belicose statemnts….but r taking tangible steps on the ground (tibet,taiwan, QUAD..)…bcoz of the personal political capital invested by the PM in the china relationship…there was a delay in retracing the steps..but aftr galwan…we r free from the clutches of the dragon’s tail…
    These r interesting times…

  11. The autumn 2015 blockade – whose root cause lay in the Bihar election – was sandwiched between the earthquake and winter. UNICEF had cautioned that it placed the lives and well being of children at risk. Not just the elites, it cost India the goodwill of ordinary Nepalis. The refusal to exchange 500 and 1,000 rupee notes after demonetisation also hurt. 2. Both sides cultivate, invest in, then lean on Nepali politicians and influence makers. Earlier it was India all the way. Now, as China’s economic and other stakes in Nepal grow, the fight is becoming more even. Unlikely that either side can have things its way on this factor alone. 3. For decades, India had first mover advantage in developing Nepal’s hydro electric potential. Failed to deliver. China has proven execution capabilities, surplus capital. In each South Asian neighbour, it is leveraging this, along with its larger quantum of merchandise trade, to muscle into what India regarded as its natural sphere of influence. The comatose state of SAARC does not help. 4. Along with having a plan for the neighbourhood and beyond, India should also have a plan for its own economic rise. Without this, we will not be able to keep up with the dragon.

  12. This Modiji should had done long back in 2014 when he came to power, rather he focused on US relations. Now Trump showed his true American colors, Modiji realised neighborhood is more important than distant/ distanced relatives.

  13. It looks like a hastily written article by a very senior journalist.

    Lacks research. We expect much better from you, ma m.

Comments are closed.