It could well be seen as a first follow-up to last month’s big diplomatic engagement. Fresh from his successful informal summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Wuhan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is embarking on a short, but important, visit to Nepal—a country that of late had become the diplomatic battleground for India-China rivalry in South Asia.
Observers believe the ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ in Sino-Indian relations clearly reflect in the mood of neighbours while dealing with India. It has to be noted that strained Indo-Nepal relations in the recent past had much to do with the rising tension between New Delhi and Beijing.
No details of the Wuhan talks on how Beijing and New Delhi would respond to each other’s presence in South Asia has been made public yet. But helping Nepal achieve stability and prosperity may fall well within the ambit of their agreement to improve relations—since this also acts as a spur to their own growth. Whether this will be achieved through cooperation among the three countries or by pushing their projects in Nepal individually, are questions that policy planners are mulling over.
Though much has been said about the Nepalese and Indian premiers’ visit to each other’s countries almost within a month, Nepalese foreign minister Pradip Gyawali’s visit to Beijing last month was no less significant. Its primary focus was to prepare for Nepalese PM K.P. Sharma Oli’s visit to China in the coming weeks.
Among the various issues on the table for the Indian and Nepalese PMs, China is likely to be one of the important ones; particularly, Chinese infrastructure projects in Nepal and their likely impact on India.
How Modi fares during his one-and-a-half-day visit, therefore, is of utmost importance not only to the politician who is seeking re-election in 2019. It has wider implication for India and the primacy of place it traditionally enjoys in the subcontinent.
Under Modi’s leadership, India-Nepal relations have run through the entire gamut of emotions in the past four years. Being the first Indian PM in 17 years to visit Nepal, Modi was feted and mobbed on Kathmandu’s streets in 2014. But relations nosedived within two years, and he was seen as a villan when New Delhi imposed an economic blockade on Nepal for ignoring its advice on giving more voice to the Madhesis in the country’s new constitution. Therefore, when Modi arrives in Nepal this weekend, the keenness of many to know the kind of reception he gets in this land-locked Himalayan country is understandable. Though most of the agitators in the past are now in the ruling coalition in Nepal and India’s traditional ally, the Nepali Congress, the main opposition, a warm reception for Modi must not come as a surprise.
“This is an extremely important visit, for relations between the two countries have come full circle under Modi’s prime ministership,” says India’s former ambassador to Nepal, Ranjit Rae. “It is now for him to take it forward,” he adds.
But for many Nepalese, there is confusion over what Modi’s visit is actually aimed at. “What brings the Indian prime minister to Nepal is not yet clear, though different theories are being floated,” says Kathmandu-based political commentator Yubaraj Ghimire.
India’s urgency to mend ties with Nepal shows in Modi’s third visit in four years. But many in Nepal are confused about its true purpose.
Whatever the theories expound, the fact that this is Modi’s third visit to Nepal in four years shows the government’s urgency to improve ties. The ruling BJP had come under scathing criticism at home for damaging the country’s relations with one of its most constant allies. The attempt now is to repair them in earnest.
Some observers see an advantage for bilateral ties to sweep through the whole spectrum of highs and lows. They feel India can now argue that though negative developments had strained relations, the fact they are back on track shows the durability and the inter-dependence of India-Nepal ties.
It’s debatable, to put it mildly, if Nepal agrees with this.
Yet, Modi’s decision to begin his visit from Janakpur, and not Kathmandu, is significant. Its salience lies in shared symbolism, and the attempt to harness it to reach a few objectives.
According to legend, Janakpur is associated with Sita, the place she wed Rama. It allows Modi to connect Janakpur with Ayodhya, the birthplace and capital of Rama and give a fillip to the Ramayan circuit. He is likely to announce a bus service connecting the two places, giving a push for religious tourism, as well as making a gesture towards millions of Hindutva followers.
“This not only encourages religious tourism in a big way, but also aids in establishing the age-old Hindu link between India and Nepal, that traditionally kept the two neighbours close,” says Ranjit Rae.
Modi will also visit the Muktinath temple at Mustang in the country’s north-west, underlining the religious bonds between the two countries further.
However, Janakpur is also important because of its location in the heart of the Terai region dominated by the Indian-origin Madhesis, who not only play a key role in Nepal’s politics, but also in its relations with India.
Though much of the hype will be surrounding Modi’s public engagements—like the two receptions in Janakpur and Kathmandu—the true import of the visit will lie in discussions behind closed doors.
It is during these discussions that China’s role in Nepal is likely to be discussed, especially infrastructure projects and the ‘trade and transit’ treaty that Oli had signed with the Chinese at the height of the anti-Indian agitation during the economic blockade.
By all indications, the Chinese are pushing for an early finalisation of the protocol, so that the important trade and transit treaty can be signed at the earliest.
There is a lot of enthusiasm, too, among the Nepalese intelligentsia for the treaty, as it gives the land-locked nation an option beyond India for the movement of goods in and out of Nepal. Many experts have raised questions on the cost-effectiveness of the proposed Chinese routes. But politically, it is a handy tool for Nepalese politicians, for it acts as a bargaining chip that indicates to New Delhi that if it is faced with another crisis in future ties, it can always fall back on an alternative route. This, in turn, would give rise to a sense of urgency during Modi’s visit vis-a-vis a push for several pending projects.
One of the highlights will be the laying of the foundation stone by Modi for the Arun III hydropower project. He is also slated to announce a number of other infrastructure projects and those that enhance connectivity between India and Nepal.
But there is scepticism among sections in Nepal about the gap between Indian promises about projects and their actual realisation. “Many Nepalese are enthusiastic about better cooperation with China as they believe Chinese projects will be implemented much faster than the Indian ones,” points out Ghimire.
Undoubtedly, the Indian PM is aware of this and needs to convince the Nepalese leadership and its people about New Delhi’s seriousness in delivering on the promised projects in a time-bound manner. Despite Modi’s efforts, how soon such well-meaning plans will be able to cut through the dreaded ‘red tape’ in India and in the Nepalese bureaucracy is a matter of conjecture.
Granted, the Chinese factor is a constant presence, but ties between India and Nepal should be pulled back to their closest irrespective of that. For, traditional links and mutual-dependence of this sort is thicker than the demands of globalisation and strategic options.