THE Hindutva-espousing BJP does touch a chord among a large section of the Nepali population," admits analyst Dhurba Kumar. "But I very much doubt whether Nepal's 'Hinduness' would mean anything once you get down to the arena of realpolitik." That just about sums up the dilemma Hindu Nepal faces while dealing with a BJP government in New Delhi, not the least because there's enough domestic instability to bother about.
On April 10, weeks after India got a new prime minister, Nepal's Surya Bahadur Thapa, of the royalist Rashtriya Prajatantra Party—heading a shaky alliance with the Nepali Congress—stepped down as per the terms of the pact. Preoccupied by this climate of flux, few predictions are forthcoming on how the BJP's ascent may affect ties.
But there are those who fear the BJP for just the opposite reason: India, under Hindu "chauvinists", may come out a bit too strongly in favour of "special ties" between the two Hindu nations, riding roughshod over the sensitivities of the minority groups. Nepalis like to believe religious tolerance is a hallmark of their society where Hindus and Buddhists share a number of rituals and festivals and visit each other's shrines.
But most analysts readily agree that, BJP or no BJP, South Block's stand on bilateral issues will remain much the same and the status quo will hold. After the BJP assumed office, New Delhi said the policy of non-reciprocity in India's dealings with smaller neighbours, as enunciated in the Gujral Doctrine, would not be changed.
All this hasn't stopped the common Nepali from fondly recalling the heydays of the Janata government (1977-79), which marked a thaw in ties. For the first time, India gave in to Nepal's demand for separate trade and transit treaties. And everyone is aware that it was none other than the then foreign minister, A.B. Vajpayee, who initiated the breakthrough.
Early this month, the new government in New Delhi reassured everyone here with one of its first foreign policy decisions. Though the extension of Phulbari—Nepal's newly opened alternative transit route to and through Bangladesh—after the expiry of the six-month trial phase was a foregone conclusion, it drove home a vital message: the BJP would continue with the policy of "constructive policy" towards smaller neighbours. In fact it went a step ahead. Upon renewal, the Phulbari corridor has now been made available for four days a week for transit traffic—instead of two days granted by the United Front.
The sense of relief was spontaneous. "The extension of the Panitanki-Phulbari transit route from two to four days a week is a commendable gesture on the part of India," gushed The Kathmandu Post, Nepal's leading English-language newspaper. But the newspaper, in its April 3 editorial, also reminded that the "Indian government is soon expected to inform Nepal on an alternative route." It was hinting at the possibility of keeping the route open for all seven days, as has been suggested by a parliamentary team that recently paid a field visit to Phulbari. To make the route commercially viable, Nepali businessmen argue, India would have to keep it open all seven days.
"Phulbari is only the tip of the iceberg," says Hiranya Lal Shrestha, who heads Parliament's foreign affairs committee. "Vajpayee is certainly among those Indian leaders who have great goodwill toward Nepal. But the key to his success lies in how he balances his liberal initiatives with the deeply entrenched South Block bureaucracy."
On the whole, however the Nepali media's reaction to the BJP's victory has at best been muted. Which is somewhat strange, given that the party enjoys considerable support among the intelligentsia. But whatever little that's been printed reflects a distinct Hindu bias. "The Himalayan Hindu kingdom views the (the mid-term poll) and the subsequent change in government as a wise decision on the part of the Indian electorate," observed the government-owned Gorkhapatra in an editorial. Clearly, the Nepali establishment is keen to see some concrete bilateral gestures before endorsing the BJP's ascent to power.