Campaigning in Nepal

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has arrived on his third visit to Nepal in three years. The first time he came to Kathmandu in 2014 shortly after being elected, it had been nearly two decades since an Indian leader had visited Nepal. 

Modi has not tried to hide his soft spot for Nepal. He began his speech to the Constituent Assembly Parliament in Kathmandu three years ago in near-fluent Nepali, and recalled that he had once made a pilgrimage to Nepal. Modi indeed spent 1968-70 touring Hindu holy places in north India, during which he is said to have visited Pashupati, Janakpur and meditated in Muktinath. 

Modi had wanted to turn his second visit to Kathmandu during the SAARC Summit in 2015 into a pilgrimage. In Janakpur he had wanted to address a mass-meeting to be beamed live on Indian TV channels from the birthplace of Sita. He would have then flown to Muktinath for prayers. However, the pilgrimage was cancelled since Prime Minister Sushil Koirala was against a regional summit being turned into a bilateral visit. 

Illustration: Bhanu Bhattarai

Nepal was in the throes of Constitution-writing at the time, and Koirala’s real worry was that Modi’s visit to Mithila would embolden Madhesi activists demanding greater autonomy for a plains-only province. Modi is said to have taken the rejection as a personal affront. Being a man who does not forget slights, this set the stage for things to get much worse, after his emissary Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar’s wish that promulgation of the Constitution be delayed until Madhesi demands were met was rejected by Kathmandu.

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India then enforced a five-month border Blockade on earthquake-ravaged Nepal from September 2015 to January 2016. The siege was much more earth-shaking than the quake – it sent Nepal’s economy into negative growth and its political fallout is still much in evidence. Oli, who had portrayed himself as a David against the Indian Goliath during the Blockade, exploited that nationalist trump card during last year’s elections to give himself and his Maoist partners a thumping majority in Parliament

Modi’s visit this weekend is an effort to turn the clock back to 2014, and restore Nepal-India friendship and trust to the level that followed his first visit. But don’t expect Modi to make amends this time for the long years of hardships he unleashed on the Nepali people. There will be some token gifts, but not much more because the trip is driven by regional geopolitics and domestic electoral politics. In fact, going by social media reaction Modi’s decision to go to Janakpur first has actually widened the cleavage between hills and plains. People in Province 2 overwhelmingly welcome the visit, while the rest of Nepal is distrustful.

Read also: A political pilgrim, Om Astha Rai

In India itself, the prime minister has been under blistering attack for the failure of his ‘neighbourhood first’ policy allowing Chinese inroads into Sri Lanka, Maldives and Nepal. And even though news of the Blockade was successfully suppressed in the Indian and international media, Modi came across in 2015 as a regional bully -- creating some consternation in Western capitals which had bequeathed Nepal policy to New Delhi. 

The pilgrimages to Janakpur and Muktinath are photo-ops for domestic consumption to drive home the Hindu agenda in local assembly polls in Karnataka as well as national elections next year. The only problem is that Karnataka’s Hindus are fiercely Shaivite, whereas Muktinath is a Vishnu shrine. Even so, it helps that Vishnu is revered in Modi’s home state of Gujarat. The announcement of a Ramayana Circuit to link Janakpur with Ayodhya will have resonance among voters in India’s ‘Cow Belt’. 

India’s bureaucracy and politicians often work themselves into a frenzy about China, believing the paranoia they themselves leak to the national media. They then export that insecurity to the neighbourhood. PM Oli understood this and played the ‘China Card’ to the hilt during the blockade, making a big deal out of the few token tankers of petroleum China donated, and signing a trade and transit deal amidst much fanfare. China’s help was actually just symbolic, and Oli hasn’t followed up on it in his current tenure. 

India is China’s number one import market. Beijing is using anti-Indian sentiments in Nepal to its advantage, but did nothing to jeopardise its close trade ties with India by substantially helping Nepal during the Blockade and after. The advice from Chinese leaders to Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali last month was consistent with what they have told everyone from King Gyanendra to Prachanda in the past: don’t play us off against India, and sort out your relations with New Delhi. Despite the blockade, Chinese policy has not changed.

The Modi visit may be a time to remind ourselves of the economic ties between India and Nepal as well. Nepal’s trade deficit with India was almost $10 billion last year, making Nepal the tenth largest market for Indian goods. Our economic dependence on India has a direct impact on our political independence. However, Nepal is also the seventh largest source of foreign remittances into India because of the money Indian workers in Nepal send home. No one keeps count of how much money Nepali workers in India bring back. 

Given this close economic relationship, why can’t India Nepal relations ever be ‘normal’? Nepal’s leaders need to be mature enough not to bait India to fan popularity at home. Nepali nationalism should not be defined by anti-Indianism.

For its part, Indian leaders must be aware of Nepali sensitivities about sovereignty, and show genuine magnanimity where they can. The overbearing attitude of Indian officials, and the fickleness of their Nepali counterparts have been the main reason for past mistrust. 

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