What India couldn’t achieve during Modi’s Nepal visit
Atul K Thakur
KP Sharma Oli, Nepal’s prime minister, is a politician gifted to represent the contradictions. Before he secured absolute majority and let the insecure comrades-in-arms, including formidable Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai join an unusual left unity, he was not someone who believed in Nepal’s ethnic diversities and the rights of Madhesis, Tharus, Janjatis and women.
Oli had represented the old world view of Kathmandu’s ruling elite, unevenly dominated through the stronghold of hilly Arya-Khas community. But in the changed times, with the provision of provincial governments in Madhesh and extraordinary attention on his over-sized promises, Oli is now more receptive to broader ideas than ever before.
Living the same positive spirit, he visited India immediately after taking charge as a prime minister for a second term. Attempting course-correction, he also invited Narendra Modi to visit Janakpur, Muktinath (Mushtang) and Kathmandu — places vital for latter’s “cultural encircling policy” and effectively creating a Ramayana Tourist Circuit around India-Nepal-Sri Lanka. Finally, Modi was allowed to do what Kathmandu had once resisted fearing it may rile an aggressive China.
Noticeably, Modi’s Nepal visit didn’t touch the base of China’s One Belt One Road Initiative and skipped the complex issues of trilateralism. Also, on enhancing bilateral economic cooperation and for removing the idiosyncrasies in India’s stalled energy and infrastructure projects, the visit proved to be a wasted opportunity.
It’s been ironical that the high-profile political visits and diplomatic engagements have not been helpful to the stalled hydroelectricity projects in which India has high stakes and is subject to growing criticism in Kathmandu’s policy circle.
Among a large number of Nepalis, India is no longer being seen as an ally that keeps its words and implements things on ground. This should concern PM Modi, as for him, Nepal is the most important zone where he has been trying hard to implement his plans.
What was rather expected of Modi’s visit was to get the long-pending issues of Kosi project and other joint energy projects on the table for discussion in order to find mutually agreeable solutions.
In fact, a point-wise analysis of pending issues and solving them would have been appreaciated.
In Janakpur, the culturally, historically and politically rich border town of Nepal, Modi received a rousing welcome from his counterpart Oli and the local government.
Among the highlights of the visit were flagging of a Maitri Bus Service between Janakpur and Ayodhya and announcement of a grant of Rs 100 crore for Janakpur. A long-pending project, Raxaul-Kathmandu railway line project, was also tabled for discussions. A feasibility study on the project in likely to be completed this year.
The response from the public to Modi’s visit was, however, cautious. In hilly areas, Modi is still seen as the single-biggest reason behind the nine-month-long painful border blockade that came in 2015. The people of Nepal also had to face unnecessary trouble because of the demonetisation plan. In Madhesh, a section of activists and people are deeply disappointed with the growing bonhomie between Modi and Oli. The Nepali prime minister is seen by many in his own country as being responsible for promulgating a divisive constitution.
For now, Nepal’s political fundamentals are stable and the government is committed to pursue the economic policies implemented by the previous governments and kings.
The ruling regime in Kathmandu is not averse to experimenting on the foreign affairs front. On both counts, China will have a larger role to play. To maintain India’s traditional edge in Nepal, Modi government should rely on the basics and let its external affairs ministry to do some crucial talking.
As on any competitive and contested turf, uninformed and unpopular advisers will harm India’s prospects further.
Ideally, India-Nepal relations should no longer be dealt through the emissaries and immature handlers of New Delhi-based think tanks. To move ahead, the Modi government will have to rely on proper channels.
In recent years, the bilateral relations between India and Nepal have been through a roller coaster ride. Both countries should come to terms with that and ensure a stable framework for the times to come.
While Nepal had opted for “a balancing approach” in dealing with Modi, India must base its reciprocation on firm grounds as it has to maintain its unique edge with its closest neighbour and silently compete with China that is no longer a lazy power of old times.
India also has to ensure that Nepal shares New Delhi’s concerns about its sovereignty. Kathmandu will come closer, if New Delhi will make enough room for Nepal – for availing its closeness with India and remaining distinct and different!
This article was first published on 13 May 2018 on dailyo.in
Published on 14 May 2018