A balancing actNepalis will greet Indian PM Modi with cautious optimism unlike in 2014 when they gave him a standing ovation
When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives in Kathmandu today, it will be his third visit to Nepal since he assumed office in 2014. He made the first visit in 2014—he was the first Indian prime minister to visit Nepal in 17 years. Later that year, he again visited Kathmandu for the Saarc Summit, though he held important talks with the then Prime Minister Sushil Koirala. In September 2015, Nepal came out with its much delayed constitution. The rest, as they say, is history. An unhappy India imposed a border blockade for five months because it felt slighted that it was not ‘consulted’ by Nepal’s three major parties—the Nepali Congress, CPN-UML and then-CPN (Maoist)—in the process.
It is important to recall and record all this as the Indian Prime Minister makes his first visit to the federal democratic republic after Nepal held its first elections to three tiers of government under the new constitution. What led New Delhi’s foreign policy bureaucracy and Modi’s core group of advisors to assume that the imposition of the blockade would deliver the desired results remains a mystery. A senior Indian official later confided to this newspaper that New Delhi actually thought that “it would all be over in a week or two” after the blockade. That certainly is not the stated official position.
What in fact transpired was a foreign policy blunder by New Delhi: Nepali people lauded their defiant political leadership for standing up to India and they didn’t rise up against their leadership as Delhi had perhaps expected. The pain post-blockade was especially acute because Nepal was hit by the worst natural disaster in our living memory—the Gorkha Earthquakes of April and May—that year. Close to ten thousand people had died and nearly a million had their homes fully or partially destroyed. We were trying to rebuild our lives. Hit by shortages of cooking gas, daily essentials and petroleum products, tens of thousands of Nepalis did not travel to their ancestral home during Dashain in 2015. The happy annual festivities took on a dark and gloomy colour that year. The post-earthquake reconstruction came to a standstill for months. All the time, the Indian envoy in town steadfastly denied that the blockade was in place at all—including to this newspaper in an interview.
Cornered, then-Prime Minister Oli signed ten framework agreements with China to diversify Nepal’s trade and transit. The long term objective to cut down the historical dependence on India was widely applauded by the Nepali public. When the elections took place last year, Oli found his nationalist position vindicated. The left alliance, however, won not just on the nationalist plank; it also promised prosperity.
As for the Indian prime minister, he perhaps is aware that his current visit to Nepal is tempered with deep scepticism. The younger Nepalis, who in 2014 had welcomed the Indian prime minister whole-heartedly, have found various platforms to express their displeasure—#BlockadeWasCrimeMrModi continue to trend among twitter followers in Nepal.
While the citizenry’s dissatisfaction is a legitimate political expression, conducting statecraft is often a complicated business, which needs to take in account the public sentiments but also strike a balance between popular sentiments and the national interest long term. Perhaps this explains why despite his reservations against the recent Indian move and his own personal differences with Modi, K P Oli chose New Delhi as his first port of call after he was elected Prime Minister. The same can perhaps be said of Modi’s visit.
Nepal and India as neighbours have historically shared deep bilateral relationship uniquely marked by people-to-people ties across a long and open border. Even in times of great turbulence, this relationship therefore deserves a very serious and quiet reflection. Nepal and India both need to understand that bilateral relationship cannot be sustained by histrionics alone; each of the two countries need to feel valued, respected, trusted and heard. There will of course be differences between close neighbours but we both need to understand that there is a strategic red line.