Nepal's prime minister KP Sharma Oli has been facing heat from his own party leaders, after his so-called 'covert' meeting with India's Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) chief Samant Kumar Goel on Wednesday night.
The R&AW chief had flown to Kathmandu on a special flight on Wednesday, and called upon the Nepalese prime minister late in the night for almost a two-hour-long meeting, The Indian Express reported.
The premise of the meeting according to the Nepalese PMO was a courtesy call whereas newspapers in India speculated that it was a preamble to a scheduled visit of Indian Army chief General MM Naravane to Nepal in the first week of November.
General Naravane is due to visit to honour a long-standing convention between the armies of the two countries. However, it is also the first high-level visit between the two neighbours, since June this year, when the already strained ties took a turn for the worst after Nepal released a new map claiming sections of the Indian territory as its own.
However, Goel's visit was perceived differently in Nepal, with several political leaders calling it 'improper' and objectionable.
Oli's meeting with Indian intelligence chief causes stir
Thapa, in a press release informed the nation that Goel paid a courtesy call on Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli.
Thapa said that during the meeting, Goel "expressed his views regarding not to allow interruption in friendly relations between Nepal and India, resolving all the outstanding issues through dialogue and continuing mutual cooperation".
However, the factions opposing Oli in his own party will not let an opportunity like this slide to criticise the prime minister who rode to power on a strong nationalistic and anti-India sentiment.
In fact, Oli has more detractors in his own party than in the Opposition. Amidst an ongoing political war over the control of the ruling Nepal Communist Party, Oli has few friends at home.
According to the Indian Express report, quoted earlier, Oli's party rival and executive chairman Pushpa Kumar Dahal Prachanda has decided to ramp up his attack against Oli on this account.
"Such a meeting, keeping the party and the ministry concerned in absolute dark, calls for an explanation from the prime minister," Prachanda told a gathering of his supporters, that also included two ministers from Oli's cabinet.
The meeting that took place between RAW chief Goel and Prime Minister Oli was against diplomatic norms and it doesn't serve Nepal's national interest, said senior ruling party leader Bhim Rawal.
"As the meeting took place in a non-transparent manner without consulting with the concerned section of the Foreign Ministry, this may also contribute to weakening our state mechanism," he pointed out.
Bishnu Rijal, deputy chief of the foreign affairs department of the NCP, said politicians should not overstep in matters related to diplomacy.
Diplomacy should be handled by diplomats not politicians, he said.
"The present confusion over the visit of the R&AW chief is the result of the handling of diplomacy by politicians," he added.
Nepali Congress central leader Gagan Thapa in a tweet said that the meeting posed a threat to national security.
"The meeting was not only the breach of our diplomatic norms but it also poses threat to our national security, which needs to be investigated into," Thapa tweeted.
This comes despite reports in Indian media that Goel had also met Prachanda, Nepalese Leader of Opposition Sher Bahadur Deuba, former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai and Madhesi leader Mahantha Thakur. These meetings, however, have neither been confirmed nor denied by relevant authorities in both nations. Only the meeting with Oli was acknowledged by his press secretary Surya Thapa.
However, these leaders have categorically denied meeting Goel, as per PTI
Why is Oli facing criticism over meet with R&AW chief?
This brings us to the second aspect of why a meeting between Indian intel chief and the Nepalese prime minister was frowned upon: the general mistrust of New Delhi in Nepal's power corridors and the perception that India meddles with Nepal's internal politics.
Goel's visit comes on the heels of a controversial cabinet reshuffle in Nepal which left the ruling NCP more divided than before.
The changes introduced on 15 October included removal of defence minister Ishwar Pokhrel, who is seen as anti-India and pro-China. Pokhrel now holds the charge of prime minister's office, while Oli took charge of the defence ministry himself.
"Pokharel, who is known for his tilt towards the North, has been transferred to the Prime Minister's Office, apparently in a signal to New Delhi ahead of the forthcoming visit to Nepal by the Indian Army chief," senior journalist and editor of Janamanch Weekly Pralhad Rijal told PTI.
Now Goel's visit sparked criticism in Nepal that the ruling dispensation was trying to reach out to India after spoiling the ties in the first place.
The ties between the two countries came under strain after Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated an 80-km-long strategically crucial road connecting the Lipulekh pass with Dharchula in Uttarakhand on 8 May.
Nepal protested the inauguration of the road claiming that it passed through its territory. Days later, Nepal came out with a new map showing Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura as its territories.
In the midst of the row, General Naravane said that there were reasons to believe that Nepal objected to the road at the behest of "someone else", in an apparent reference to a possible involvement of China in the matter. The comments triggered angry reactions from Nepal.
India too had published a new map in November 2019 showing the areas as its territories.
After Nepal released the map, India reacted sharply, calling it a "unilateral act" and cautioning Kathmandu that such "artificial enlargement" of territorial claims will not be acceptable to it.
Prime Minister Oli has been asserting that Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura belong to his country and vowed to "reclaim" them from India.
Bijay Lal Kanta Karna, Nepal's former ambassador to India told The Kathmandu Post that visits of Indian high ranking officials to Nepalese politicians, although not traditional in common parlance, have remained a long-standing tradition in Nepal. However, he said that Oli, of all people meeting the R&AW chief behind his own party and cabinet's back has brought his 'nationalistic credentials under question'.
The extent of this can be gauged from the fact that a simple festive greeting by Oli's office created a stir on Twitter after citizens pointed out that the coat of arms in the greeting had the old map, that did not include Limpiyadhura, the current bone of contention between the two nations.
The same message was shared by Prime Minister Oli's Foreign Affairs advisor Rajan Bhattarai on the micro-blogging site, adding his own greetings, without acknowledging the controversy over the use of old map.
Many linked this omission to Goel's visit and questioned why the prime minister dropped the new contentious map just after a high profile visit.
However, the local press carried PMO's clarification later in the day that the coat of arms in the greetings message indeed has Limpiyadhura in the map, but it is not visible due to the small size of the image.
The Lipulekh pass is a far western point near Kalapani. Both India and Nepal claim Kalapani as an integral part of their territory - India as part of Uttarakhand's Pithoragarh district and Nepal as part of its Dharchula district.
With inputs from PTI