A political pilgrim

BANNER HEADLINE: One of many posters in Hindi that have gone up in Janakpur welcoming Indian Prime Minister Modi to Nepal. Ishwar Chandra Jha

Indian PM Narendra Modi will spend most of his Nepal visit this weekend in prayer and worship, but his two stopovers in Kathmandu for political meetings will have long-term consequences for the two countries.

On Friday, after flying directly into Janakpur from New Delhi and offering prayers at Janaki Temple with Prime Minister K P Oli, Modi will fly to Kathmandu. Here, Nepali and Indian officials will exchange agreements on railways, inland waterway navigation and agriculture in the presence of the two PMs.

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How strongly Oli, one of the strongest Nepali PMs ever, can safeguard the country’s national interest in those deals will determine not just his own legacy but also Nepal’s fate.

Last month, when Oli visited New Delhi, he wanted Modi’s support to launch Nepal’s own merchant marine. But Modi outsmarted Oli by offering more: connecting Sagar (Mt Everest) to Saagar (the ocean) through inland waterways.

With the blockade in 2015, Modi squandered the goodwill of most Nepalis that he had earned during his previous two visits to Kathmandu. He will be trying to rebuild that trust on this trip. But experts say the inland waterway proposal is just a code for pushing through controversial high-dam schemes on the Kosi and other Nepal rivers.

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India is building national waterways that can take ocean-going barges to streamline transportation. Regulated water from Nepal’s rivers is crucial for the 1,620km Haldiya-Allahabad stretch of the Ganges-Bhagirathi-Hooghly river system. It can take barges only if the river’s lean season flow is augmented, and for that large reservoirs have to be built on the tributaries of the Ganges, most of which flow down from Nepal.

The talk of inland water navigation is therefore a way to persuade Nepal to agree to dam its rivers. India has proposed a 300m high dam on the Kosi which would create a reservoir 100km long. It could serve tourism, transportation and fisheries, but there would be massive inundation of prime farmland, settlements and infrastructure. There is also the sedimentation and seismic risk.

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Experts say Nepal need not reject outright India’s proposal to build high dams, but Kathmandu must seek equitable benefit sharing and fair compensation.

Says water expert Dwarika Nath Dhungel: “If it is Modi’s strategic move to connect Nepal with India’s waterways, Oli should have his own strategy to ensure Nepal’s share of benefits.”

As a strong PM set to govern Nepal for the next five years, Oli is in a better position than most of his predecessors to drive a hard bargain on river sharing. If he cannot do it, no one else can.

Nonetheless, given how hard Oli appears to be trying to please Modi, analysts are not optimistic.

Analyst Shreekrishna Aniruddh Gautam says: “Oli was perceived to be a rare Nepali leader who could stand up to India. But he is also wilting.”

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