Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s neighourhood outreach continues with a visit to Nepal when he left New Delhi for a two-day visit to Kathmandu on August 3, his second visit to a neighbouring country in little over two months since he took over as Prime Minister. Bhutan was his first foreign destination weeks after he assumed power.
Modi’s visit, which follows immediately after a three-day trip to Nepal by External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, is the first stand-alone bilateral visit by an Indian Prime Minister in 17 years. I.K. Gujral had visited Nepal in 1997. The last Prime Minister to visit Nepal was Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2002 for a SAARC summit.
Accompanied by a team of 70 to 75 people including bureaucrats and businessmen, he will hold talks with President Ram Baran Yadav and Prime Minister Sushil Koirala. Leaders of Nepal’s three prominent arties – ruling Nepali Congress, Communist Party of Nepal [UML] and the opposition Unified Communist Party of Nepal [Maoist] will also hold talks with him.
Modi will also address the Nepalese Parliament in a rare honour. He will be the second foreign leader after former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in the early 1990s, to address Nepal’s Parliament-cum-Constituent Assembly.
The two countries are expected to sign agreements in tourism and power sectors. India may also announce an economic package for Nepal. India appears to be amenable to the Nepali proposal for including Lumbini in Indian Buddhist Tourist Circuit and creating a new religious – tourism circuit linking the holy cities of Kedarnath-Badrinath-Somnath in India with the Hindu temple of Pashupathinath in Nepal. Flood control and river training are also going to be part of discussions. India has given over Rs. 200 crore as help for embankment and flood control and officials say, New Delhi is ready to give more, but it needs to have some real-time information sharing on the rivers which as of now is not much. A times India faces floods because of the rivers originating in Nepal.
Nepal Foreign Minister Mahendra Bahadur Pandey ahead of Modi’s visit, said it will create an environment of trust and enhanced cooperation that will enable both countries to work together on bilateral basis as well as in the international forums.
In a newspaper interview, Nepal Prime Minister Sushil Kumar Koirala said Modi’s visit offers an opportunity to rebuild trust given that there had been gaps on the Indian side in dealing with neighbours. “The fact that there has been no Indian Prime Ministerial visit for 17 years to Nepal, contributed to the perception of neglect”, he said in an interview with the HINDUSTAN TIMES. He said Modi’s visit will convince Nepalis that India is committed to peace, stability and democracy in the country. He said, when he visited New Delhi for Modi’s swearing-in on May 26, in his bilateral talks, he told asked him about two things which needed to be done for Nepal: Hydropower cooperation, the construction of the Postal Road in Tarai and of the Mid Hill Highway.
India is making efforts to boost ties in all aspects, including defence, security, training exercises and connectivity. Briefing newsmen on the visit, Foreign Office spokesman, Syed Akbaruddin told newsmen on Aug 1, coming close to the visit to Nepal by External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, Modi’s visit shows the intention and priority that he places on the neighbourhood.
Time for get strained relations back on track
There is a great deal of skepticism that needs to be addressed. Analysts note India-Nepal relationship has been a hostage of a number of established narratives or perceptions. One of these is the lack of high-level engagements between India and Nepal for a long time given the fact that the last visit of an Indian PM was 17 years ago. But, almost a decade out of these 17 years was hijacked by a civil war in Nepal and the remaining years by political instability and lack of stable government there. In such a situation, the visit of any Indian PM could have contributed very little to the bilateral cooperation and relationship.
Another issue, according to these analysts is 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship which the two countries, during the just ended visit of Sushma Swaraj to Kathmandu, have agreed to review. . From Nepal’s side, it is often perceived as an unfair and unequal one. The political and intellectual elites of Nepal use this treaty to whip up ‘anti-India sentiments’. Analysts however mention that it was Nepal who wanted this treaty to be signed as a defence against perceived security threats from China and to maintain special ties with India. In return, India was to have Nepal as a buffer. The Indian view is that the treaty has been benefitting the common Nepalese citizens and the political elites since then, but, anti-India sentiments are fuelled by a section of political establishments in Nepal.
Anti-India sentiment, since the time of King Mahendra, has been the most important tool for the political forces to promote Nepali nationalism. It has been observed that the political forces in opposition are more prone to use anti-India card for political mileage. Most of this anti-India posturing in Nepal is purely for domestic consumption, and rather than reacting to it, India must understand this dynamics and deal with it in an innovative manner.
Another fact that adversely effects relations is that India is conveniently blamed to be meddling in the internal affairs of Nepal. It is widely believed in Nepal that India has been playing a vital role in encouraging the Madheshi movement in 2007 to weaken the influence of the Maoists in the Terai region. India has done little to alter this widely held perception. India’s approach towards Nepal before and during the civil war has not kept this perception in view while structuring its policy.
The onset of the Maoist insurgency in the late 1990s and hijacking of the Indian airline plane by Islamist terrorists from Kathmandu in 1999 gave a new twist to Indo-Nepal relations. Experts say Indian bureaucrats and Intelligence officials blew up the issue of “security threats” and took charge of Nepal policy in their own hands. Whatever relationship was extant at the political level was snapped. India’s involvement – perceived or otherwise – in the formation and dissolution of successive governments in Kathmandu after the regime change in 2006 only raised questions over the southern neighbour’s motives.
Observers recall that the “twin pillar policy” of India which advocated a cohabitation between constitutional monarchy and parliamentary form of government was not taken well by the any of the political forces in Nepal – monarchy, political parties and the Maoists. India failed to grasp the changing reality in Nepal ever since 1950s. It should have rightly committed itself to democracy in Nepal rather than hoping for a balance between two contradictory forces. The result of this policy was disastrous. Each of these forces suspected India to be favouring the other. Similar perception continues even today that India favours one party or group over the other. In this context, political observers say, India must have made its stand clear as spelt out by Sushma Swaraj during her visit that “India has no favourites in Nepal”.
The suggestions are that while India must invest in political stability in Nepal without favouring any party or group, Nepal must realise genuine security interests of India. The porous and open boundary between India and Nepal is a hub of criminal activities including smuggling of large amount of Fake Indian Currency Notes (FICN). The number of terrorists arrested from Indo-Nepal borders highlights the continued movement of terrorists in this area.
To start a new chapter, Modi must deliver on a number of agreed projects. These include the Pancheswar Multipurpose Project as part of the Mahakali Treaty of 1996, a 250 Mega Watt Hydro Project promised in 2008 but now considered “not feasible” by India. Similarly, two more mega-projects, Saptakosi and Karnali-Chisapani have been on the drawing board for almost three decades.
Experts suggest Modi’s visit should importantly take the initiative to renegotiate the 1950 treaty keeping in mind the strategic interests of both the countries.
Finally, Modi should avoid basing India’s policy towards Nepal on exaggerated fear of China. Given the inerasable natural, cultural and emotional links between the two countries, Nepal can ill afford to snap its relationship with India, despite periodic susceptibility of its people to anti-India propaganda by vested interests at the domestic level.
Modi has the potential to lay the ground for common prosperity and dispel the myths and misunderstandings that have long dogged Indo-Nepal relations. Modi will be judged in Nepal not by what he promises, but by how he performs.