A mere lip service?Modi’s visit to Nepal was more jam packed and less result oriented
The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi concluded his state visit to Nepal last Saturday, the third in four years since he assumed office. During the visit to Janakpur, Modi and his Nepali counterpart KP Oli inaugurated a direct bus service between Janakpur of Nepal and Ayodhya of India, considered to be the birth places of Goddess Sita and Lord Rama, respectively, to connect them with Ramayana religious travel circuit. Symbolically, this was alluded to have rescued the fraught relations following the five month-long economic blockade by India after Nepal promulgated a new constitution in September 2015.
From the over-squeezed and jam packed itinerary of the 30-hour sojourn, it was apparent that priorities and expectations of the visit for two prime ministers were strikingly different. Modi perhaps wanted to principally make a pilgrimage to Janakpur, Muktinath and Pashupatinath as a devout Hindu. But the host, Prime Minister Oli, had other plans to capitalize the visit in the political interests of his own. Other political parties and leaders were also jostling to have an audience when Modi was in Kathmandu which apparently made his schedule rather cramped than comfortable, let alone result-oriented.
Regardless of what happened in the past, Oli’s first aim was to reestablish himself as the ‘only’ trusted political partner of India in Nepal. This is because Oli would soon need much stronger political backing from Modi to retain the support of Madhesh based parties to save his government from falling apart as the prospect of party unity between his party, the CPN-UML, and CPN-Maoist Centre, the second largest partner in government, is becoming increasingly murkier with each passing day.
This is perhaps the reason Oli in his demeanors, gestures and tones went well beyond normal diplomatic niceties. He was not only seen decked in kurta-paijama-turban attire, akin to his guest Modi while welcoming the latter in Janakpur but also smeared holy vermilion tika on his forehead. It was quite unbecoming to an avowed Marxist who had refused to take prime ministerial oath ‘in the name of the God’ going against the format prescribed by the constitution.
Upon the successful conclusion of the visit, he tweeted ‘I am heartily grateful to Mr. Modi for his goodwill and understanding’. Strikingly though, the language chosen was not even Hindi, but Gujarati—the mother tongue of Prime Minister Modi. Against the backdrop of his acute anti-India posturing, the ‘nationalist’ plank on which Oli and his left alliance swept the last elections, these unimaginative pretentions and orchestrations might be anything but dignified diplomacy.
Visit a success?
The government quite naturally has portrayed Indian prime minister’s Nepal visit as a success. But, the implicit arguments are rather unpalatable. Prime Minister Oli and his ministers are interpreting Modi’s appreciation of successful conduction of all three levels of polls in Nepal as an automatic change in Indian stance which indeed is not the case. Indian official stance of the ‘need of making Nepal’s constitution more inclusive’ remains unchanged.
The government of Nepal may pretend that it was not pre-informed about State 2 Chief Minister, Lal Babu Raut’s felicitation speech that contained the message regarding ‘Nepal’s discriminatory constitution, oppressed and marginalized Madhesh’, but Modi’s visit preparation team could have not played that naively. And, Oli’s fresh narrative on new earned Modi’s trust will face litmus test if he can desist himself from crying foul, again, in not very unlikely event of Maoists pulling out of the governing left alliance.
Oli in the joint press conference tried to address several bilateral issues to compensate for what he was criticized for in the local media during his visit to Delhi a month ago. The list included almost everything from facilitating the exchange of demonetized Indian currency notes of 500 and 1000 denominations lying in Nepali bank to the Nepal’s widening trade deficit with India. However, their solutions barely figured in the sixteen-point joint statement; thereby vindicating the fact that Oli was raising these issues without any serious homework.
In Nepal, material gains, as compared to abstract things like national pride, is usually seen as a measure of success when it comes to bilateral visits. And this applies especially to Nepal-India visits. But even in this light, the government’s claim of success is a misplaced one. Nonetheless, Oli’s visit to Janakpur, which he had failed to venture in both his stints as the prime minister, first back in 2015 and now—was made possible only because of Modi’s visit. This undoubtedly is an achievement for Oli.
On the contrary, Prime Minster Modi and his diplomatic corps must be genuinely happy for being able to ‘neutralise’
Oli and bringing him back to the fold of ‘trusted’ ally. After this visit, the air in Delhi instantly became congenial for Modi as he was thought to be successful to ‘win back’ Nepal. Many rightly believe this was exactly what he politically wanted to achieve; apart from spiritual elation from his pilgrimages to chosen shrines.
During his two visits in 2014, Modi was unconditionally welcomed by every stratum of Nepalis alike, from politicians to a common man. Nepalis somehow identified with his pro-Hindu, and uncorrupt common-man-at-the-helm. Media was awash with praise of oratory and humility as he reached out to shake hands with people lined up on the pavements to welcome him. But the 2015 blockade changed everything. As the result, this time around, there was outrage on social media which was accompanied by bitter hash-tags and trolls.
But in all, despite the disruption in the relationship in the last two years, there is general agreement both, in New Delhi and Kathmandu that our relations are gradually heading to normalcy. Those at the helm of affairs resorted to panegyrics while the public sentiment still expressed discontent and anger through social media hash-tags However, in the end like most bilateral visits, this visit too contributed very little towards addressing the real challenge of institutionalizing the Nepal-India relations.