Narendra Modi visited Nepal earlier this week, becoming the first Indian prime minister to visit the Himalayan nation in 17 years. The two day state visit was dominated by Modi himself–his charisma worked wonders on the people of Nepal. During the trip, Modi said many things that endeared him to Nepal. He promised to support Nepal’s ongoing constitutional process, offered a $1 billion credit line for development and energy in Nepal, and promised to revise the somewhat contentious 1950 India-Nepal friendship treaty.
The Indian Prime Minister’s rhetorical skills and grace charmed the people of Nepal and won many hearts. Even Nepal’s Maoists, who were initially skeptical about the prime minister’s motives and Hindu ideological leanings, appreciated Modi’s support for Nepal. The Maoists and other Nepali parties hope that Modi’s strong backing will finally enable Nepal to draft a new constitution.
Prime Minister Modi also paid a visit to Pashupatinath Temple, a major Hindu temple located in eastern Kathmandu. There, he received a royal welcome and participated in elaborate rituals. For example, Modi donated 2,500 kg of sandalwood to the temple. Last week, when India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj visited the temple, she offered to “construct a 400-bedded guest house for devotees, [donate] ₹ 25 crore (about $5 million) for the conservation of the temple complex, and [establish] a master plan for development of the area.” Foreign policy expert C. Raja Mohan noted in an opinion piece in Indian Express that “it is no secret that the dates for Modi’s visit were finalized with the awareness that visiting Pashupatinath on a Monday of the current lunar month, Shravan, is considered especially auspicious. There is no escaping the fact that India’s new leadership is now more in sync with the deep religiosity of the subcontinent.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
In addition to reviving political and economic links between the two countries, India’s new leadership is trying to use Nepal and India’s shared Hindu and Buddhist links to develop warmer ties on the basis of cultural similarity. In this, it is succeeding.
However, one important question looms over the relationship: will Modi’s overtures to Nepal help neutralize Chinese influence in India’s neighborhood? China is currently building modern transportation infrastructure close to its border with Nepal while Indian roads to Nepal are dilapidated. Additionally, India has yet to act on its support for hydropower projects in Nepal.
Some in Nepal on the left wish to distance themselves from India because they feel Delhi has interfered in Nepal’s domestic politics. While India played a role in enabling the peace deal in 2006 that ended Nepal’s civil war and facilitated the Maoists’ entry into mainstream politics, it is also held responsible for hindering the progress of the first constituent assembly. The first assembly ended without Nepal writing a new constitution. While Modi has assured the Nepalese parties of non-interference, it remains to be seen if India can remain a neutral party in Nepal.
Nepali academician Mallika Shakya, a professor at the New Delhi-based South Asian University (SAU), notes that “New Delhi and Kathmandu might be close neighbors but have [had] very different political trajectories in the past half a century or so. How far Modi’s visit is in consonance with the new psyche of the nascent democracy will become clear in time to come.” Therefore, it remains to be seen if India can have a significant impact on Nepal.
Shakya is not certain if Modi’s visit will change anything in Nepal. According to her, “India needs to acknowledge that a certain critical mass of Nepali people want more than just aid and favors from the immediate big neighbor. What they are interested in is India’s leadership role in building alternative global platforms.” Elaborating on this idea, she asks if “India [can] envision an alternative global order that is both cosmopolitan and South Asian? And can it initiate a genuine dialogue and collaboration on this with its immediate neighbors at the intellectual and strategic levels? That is what is going to determine whether and what kind of leadership Modi will forge among its neighbors.” However, Shakya expressed skepticism on whether the future would be any different from the past in terms of India’s behavior.
Whatever the future holds, Modi’s visit to Nepal has brought Nepal’s squabbling political parties together and given them new incentive to write a constitution for the nation. As in India, Modi has inspired hope in Nepal and the Nepalese response was overwhelmingly positive. Time will tell if this hope will transform into reality.