14-20 November 2014 #732

The second coming

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has demonstrated his soft spot for Nepal, but for our future stability we cannot turn the clock back

Listening to the discourse in Kathmandu’s corridors of power these days, it doesn’t seem like it is a SAARC Summit that we are preparing for later this month but a Nepal-India Summit. In fact, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second coming to Nepal has dominated the run-up, and is being looked upon as a followup to his game-changing bilateral visit in August. That was the first time an Indian leader had visited Nepal in 17 years, which itself was an indication of just how far the two neighbours had allowed ties to lapse.

Literally overnight, Prime Minister Modi engineered a paradigm shift in relations. It took just one speech to Nepal’s parliament, broadcast live in both countries, to reboot bilateral relations. Modi systematically removed the emotional, psychological, economic and political baggage that had allowed mutual suspicions and distrust to fester. By speaking in Nepali for the first five minutes and coming across as meaning every word he said, he had Nepalis eating out of his hands. Finally, here was an Indian leader who was not patronising, overbearing or preachy. In the public perception, therefore, India was no longer a bullying Big Brother, but a benign Thulo Dai who seemed to care about our welfare.

After the visit, the joke in Kathmandu was that if Modi ever decided to stand for elections here we’d all vote for him. The fallout of the visit on Nepali public opinion was that some of our flag-waving nationalistic leaders couldn’t indulge in their traditional pastime of India-bashing anymore.

Modi didn’t just make empty promises, he followed up with his bureaucracy to ensure that they delivered on his checklist. The bilateral power trade agreement has sailed through without major hiccups, the Upper Karnali development agreement with GMR was signed, Arun is finally getting the green light after 20 years, Pancheswor has made progress on very favourable terms for Nepal, telephone calls between Nepal and India will be cheaper, the Raxaul-Amlekhganj oil pipeline is getting a go-ahead.

It’s as if a log-jam has been removed, and projects that had been pending for decades are suddenly being unleashed. Nepali negotiators we spoke to said they have never seen the Indian side so flexible, even magnanimous. This, in turn, has improved the overall investment climate and there is optimism that infrastructure will get a major boost.

So far so good. But Modi’s second visit during the SAARC Summit seems to aim for a different kind of symbolism. By travelling overland to Janakpur and doing the round of Buddhist and Hindu pilgrimage sites he is underlining our common cultural heritage. In August, Modi steadfastly avoided references to Nepal being secular, but he did not lobby for a Hindu state either. This time, the visit coincides with our Constituent Assembly dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on the constitution, and there is an expectation in some quarters that Modi may push to dilute its secular and federal content.

The reason is that various BJP and RSS emissaries who have visited Nepal in the past months have openly told their Nepali interlocutors that federalism and secularism may not be suitable for Nepal, and have blamed their own intelligence agency for foisting them on us. By pointedly referring to “Himal Pahad Tarai” in his parliament speech in August, Modi hinted at his own preference for territorial, and not ethnic, devolution. His message to Madhesi leaders during one-to-ones were also quite direct. Modi’s proposed public address in Janakpur on 25 November may be an attempt to address the Madhesi public directly, and undo some of the damage.

The Indian prime minister has  amply demonstrated his soft spot for Nepal, and reinforced it by citing our peace process in his Republic Day address in Delhi’s Red Fort, and even during his speech to the UN General Assembly. But if he genuinely wants stability and prosperity in Nepal, it may be better not to play to the gallery back home by lobbying for the reinstatement of a Hindu monarchy.

Nepalis have moved on from the divisive issue of monarchy, we are committed to addressing our diversity and redressing past injustices. It would be better if we didn’t have to import the insecurities of our neighbours. 

Read also:

Modifiable relations, Damakant Jayshi

Separation of state and temple, Editorial

Modi-fying Indo-Nepal ties, Damakant Jayshi

Great expectations, Anurag Acharya

Modi’s momentum, Kanak Mani Dixit

Speaking truth to power, Editorial

Indian insecurities, Prashant Jha