Modi’s Third Nepal Visit Entails Commitments Wrapped in Culture

PM Modi knows that a failed neighborhood policy with Nepal would be a huge electoral liability in 2019.

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Opinion
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Modi’s visit to Nepal was carefully packaged in civilisational and cultural connectivity between India and Nepal.
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After Wuhan in China, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Nepal manifests the gradual unfolding of India’s Neighbourhood First.2 policy – a redefined and recast Neighbourhood First.

The need for recasting the Neighborhood First policy has arisen because this policy, launched with a great fanfare in May 2014, got badly derailed.

An unimaginative muscular diplomacy that glorified itself in avoidable physical and diplomatic intrusions in the neighboring countries, and India’s incorrigible delivery deficit between promise and performance did not allow the Neighborhood First policy to flower as envisaged.

The Modi administration had become acutely conscious that a crippled Neighborhood First was facilitating China’s strategic expansion in India’s sensitive periphery. Prime Minister Modi also knew that a failed neighbourhood policy would be a huge electoral liability in 2019.

Neighborhood First.2 has therefore been liberated from muscular diplomacy and is aimed at reducing the delivery deficit as much and as fast as possible.

What is the Purpose of Modi’s Nepal Visits?

Civilisational and cultural component has been vigorously infused in India’s new approach towards its neighbors. One hopes that these changes are of strategic nature and not just tactical adjustments to meet the electoral imperatives of 2019.

Modi’s visit to Nepal was carefully packaged in civilisational and cultural connectivity between India and Nepal. The visit began from Janakpur and Ramayan Circuit was launched by flagging off a bus route between Janakpur and Ayodhya. Modi has assured the Nepalese that other such pilgrimage routes will be also be opened up between the two countries to facilitate greater people to people contacts and promote tourism.

After Janakpur, he offered his prayers at Muktinath in the Mustang (bordering China) region of Nepal, and Pashupatinath in Kathmandu. Modi had personally been keen to visit these religious places since 2014. He has also promised that in his next visit he will travel to Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha.

Through these visits, and by repeatedly invoking civilisational and cultural bonds between India and Nepal, Modi tried to reach out to the Nepali people saying that individuals and the governments come and go but relations between the two people are beyond periodic political tensions and differences.

According to the PM, the “roots of the present and seeds of future cooperation between India and Nepal are embedded in our cultural heritage”. In a subtle and indirect way, he wants the Nepalese to forget the pains inflicted by India’s coercive economic diplomacy during 2015-16 on the issue of Constitution, by looking at deeper cultural links.

Modi’s use of the cultural track has not been bereft of its political implications. Starting his journey from Janakpur was an attempt to assuage the resentment among the Madhesi people, who think that India was abandoning their cause for fair constitutional inclusion. Janakpur is the centre of Madhesi politics and is located in Province No 2 of Nepal, created under the new federal Constitution.

In the civic reception accorded to Modi in Janakpur, the Chief Minister of the Province, Mohammad Lalbabu Raut, reminded him that the struggle of Madhes for a respectable inclusion in the Constitution was still on. There were even demonstrations and placards in favour of an independent Madhesh by radical groups during the reception.

Raut further underlined that the Madhesh issue may be subdued but not dead in Nepali politics. Modi’s acknowledgement of this issue was covered in his repeated reference to “federal democracy” of Nepal, but obviously under the Neighborhood First.2.

What Measures is India Taking to Gain Political Ground?

Modi does not want to rattle Nepal on its domestic constitutional issues as was done in 2015.

To regain the lost political ground in Nepal, India has decided to seriously address the delivery deficit issue in project implementation.

Nepal has been insisting on strict timelines for the projects, which seem impossible for India to follow. And yet, the Joint Statement issued in Kathmandu after Modi’s visit, promises to address the related issues of delay by September 2018.

Nepal’s Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli has missed no occasion to remind Modi of the pending projects and past promises:

  • Recalling Modi’s 2014 promise of connecting India with Nepal through HIT (Highways, Info-ways and Tranways), Oli wants to add two more ways, Waterways and Airways.
  • Nepal is getting more airports built, in Pokhara and Lumbini, through Chinese help, and would want India to provide additional air corridors to accommodate newer flights.

Modi has given a new 5T (Tradition, Trade, Tourism, Technology and Transport) formula to Nepal during this visit. Both sides have agreed to expedite work on the rail link survey, waterways and agricultural development.

The two prime Ministers have also laid the foundation stone of a long pending hydro-power project Arun-III (900MW), and decided to finalise the Detailed Project Report (DPR) of more than two decade old multipurpose project of Pancheswar (4,500MW power and irrigation).

Urgent attention will also be paid to the problems of river training, inundation and flood control on the common border.

The visits of Nepal Prime Minister Oli to India in April and of Modi to Nepal in May 2018 definitely underline the renewed and serious efforts to restore trust and warmth in the relations between these two close neighbors.

However, it remains to be seen how this political will at the highest levels will be matched by the efficiency of the respective financial, bureaucratic and technical components of the systems of these two countries.

Any failure on their part will feed into the domestic and external anti-India lobbies in Nepal, which were seeking a public apology from Modi for the 2015-16 ‘economic blockade’.

(SD Muni is professor emeritus, JNU, and former special envoy and ambassador in the Government of India. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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