Modi’s modus operandi
My Nepal visit was historic,” Narendra Modi’s tweet said minutes after he left Kathmandu in the afternoon of 12 May. Officially, the Indian prime minister’s was a two-day state visit at the invitation of Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli. On the first day, in Janakpur, Modi had told the audience that he arrived there to begin a pilgrimage. His subsequent air-dash to Muktinath and a darshan of Pashupatinath proved the point he initially made. Probably those colourful – and punctuated – caravans and jaunts he led from Terai plains to the remote mountains offered him unprecedented moments of pleasure. And prompted him to conclude the visit indeed has been a historic one.
Understandably, there is a strong cultural dimension of the unique bilateral relations between Nepal and India. A large number of Hindu pilgrims from either side embark on travels to opposite directions every year, eventually contributing to the continuity of inherited cultural linkages. This is too obvious and doesn’t need explanation.
Or was Modi’s expression ‘historic’ meant to draw a simile, reminding Julius Caesar’s “I came I saw I conquered?”
If this portrayal was employed to depict his accomplishment as something comparable with the Roman emperor’s victorious battle in Asia Minor more than two thousand years ago, then Modi is clearly mistaken. In other words, secretaries and advisors (and sleuths) accompanying him did not give him a realistic briefing on the two days he spent in Nepal. The 2015 economic blockade New Delhi imposed on Nepal is too painful to be forgotten so quickly. Besides, the Modi government’s hostile act came at a time when Nepal was enduring initial shock and trauma caused by a devastating earthquake in late April.
It is a pity that Modi’s officials did not bother to check opinions appearing in the Indian media itself. “People of Nepal have not forgotten or forgiven PM Modi for subjecting them to a terrible humanitarian crisis by enforcing an unofficial blockade on their landlocked country” wrote Professor Ashok Swain. And it would be amazing if one were to believe that a prolific twitter user like Modi himself did not notice the trending #BlockadeWasCrimeMrModi on the eve of his arrival in Nepal. Atul K. Thakur, a New Delhi-based columnist, is equally perceptive: “In the hilly areas, Modi is still seen as the single-biggest reason behind …the painful border blockade that came in 2015.”
Incidentally, it is these hilly districts which happen to be the birthplace of Gorkhas, the ferocious soldiers the Indian army often takes pride in. Thakur also points out that China’s increasingly assertive role in Nepal and elsewhere in South Asia demands that Modi’s administrative machinery, particularly external affairs ministry, did some crucial talking. And for that, he says, the Modi government needs to rely on proper channels. Thakur is among those Indian scholars who firmly believe that “uninformed and unpopular advisors will harm India’s prospects further.”
While in Nepal, Modi had a window of opportunity to express regrets for the blockade and offer apology directly to the people of Nepal. And it would have been in line with the idea of “resetting” India’s neighbourhood policy. But apparently Modi considered it below his dignity to do so even if it would have helped healing removing the scars of the wound inflicted in 2015/16. Some of the Kathmandu intellectuals and seasoned diplomats I spoke to just before Modi’s arrival here were fairly optimistic about such a gesture coming from the distinguished Indian visitor.
Former foreign secretary Madhu Raman Acharya had taken to twitter on April 26 saying: “Modi must apologise for India’s coercive diplomacy that resulted into five month long blockade…” Similarly, in a comment published in The Hindu a day before Modi flew into Nepal, Dinesh Bhattarai, another diplomat who was an adviser to former prime minister Sushil Koirala, observed that the 2015 blockade “eroded trust and confidence” couched in eloquent words just a year before.
However, Modi’s advisors ostensibly found it unwise to even obliquely allude to the blockade; and he too must have thought that credulous people of Nepal can be easily fooled. Accordingly, he may have seen it sufficient – and expedient – to appease (and be appeased by) KP Oli and men and women around him. Anyhow, his unwillingness to be munificent on this count has obviously left a message among the Nepali people that Modi, despite his attempts to be a Hindu leader, intends to impose more blockades in future if he is re-elected to the power next year. In other words, successive governments in Nepal must continue to look for more alternative routes to ensure uninterrupted supply of essential goods and services from abroad. After all, diversification of trade is necessary to reduce deficits that is already staggering.
“The two prime ministers jointly laid the foundation stone of 900 MW Arun-III hydro-electric project in Nepal,” reads a paragraph in the joint statement issued at the end of the Modi visit. This launch seems to have encouraged him to understand that the visit has indeed been a historic one. But controversies surrounding this project, originally meant to be taken up by the World Bank 25 years ago, has thickened lately. The latest dispute emanates from government decision to award the construction contract to India’s state-owned Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam through a mechanism (Investment Board) created to evade the constitutional requirement of parliamentary endorsement by a two-thirds majority on deals relating to utilisation/distribution of Nepal’s natural resources. The issue has already surfaced on the floor of the House. Water and energy experts are also worried by the fact that the agreement commits Nepal to export to India all the electricity generated at low cost, and buy some of it later, at the prices fixed by the Indian side. Dipak Gyawali, one of such experts who once served as water resources minister, sees this as an untenable proposition. Nepal’s need for clean energy is steadily increasing as the country seeks to modernise transportation, agriculture and enhance industrial activities. Nepal has to create jobs for youths, and build a sound and sustainable revenue base.
Local level resentment, press reports say, is simmering around Arun’s project site.
A Press Trust of India (PTI) report the other day said a bomb was exploded in the premises of the project office located in the eastern hill district of Sankhuwasabha. On April 17, a pressure cooker bomb went off near an Indian relief office in Biratnagar. (The office, which was set up temporarily during the floods of 2008, is being run by the Indian embassy in Kathmandu without permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.)
Past experiences with India on water-utilisation and flood control projects have not been inspiring either. Indian authorities are noticeably quick to sign agreements but are palpably slow when it comes to implementation. The Pancheshwar project on Mahakali river in the far west region is a striking example of how Delhi employs methods and baits that legally preempt possible deals that Nepal could make with interested parties in other countries.
How long can such gimmicks be helpful to New Delhi to win hearts and minds of people living next door? As the maxim goes, you cannot fool all the peoples all the times.
This article was first published on The Rising Nepal on 16 May 2018.