Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a state visit to India’s northern neighbor from May 11-12. It was his third visit since taking office in 2014, and the first since Nepal’s current government was inaugurated in February of this year.
The chief purpose of Modi’s visit was to restore his image and goodwill, which dwindled in Nepal mainly after the unofficial Indian economic blockade in 2015.
Modi first landed in Janakpur, headquarters of Province No. 2, where he enjoys more support than in Kathmandu and Nepal’s hilly areas. When Nepal promulgated its constitution in 2015, regional Madhes-based parties, which are mainly active in Province No. 2, protested, terming it “a divisive constitution.” India vocally supported their demands for constitutional amendment. Speaking at a civic reception in Janakpur, Chief Minister of Province No. 2 Lal Babu Rawat said that people of this region continue to feel discrimination from the state.
“Despite the promulgation of the constitution, our needs are yet to be addressed. We will continue to struggle to guarantee our rights,” Rawat said, apparently seeking India’s support. But Modi, in his all speeches, did not mention anything about Nepal’s constitution; instead he lauded Nepal’s successful holding of three levels of elections in 2017. India, which vocally supported the demands of Madhes-based parties in 2015, now remains mum over those demands in order to improve ties with Kathmandu.
In Janakpur, besides pledging 1 billion Indian rupees ($14.8 billion) in aid to develop Janakpur city, Modi launched the Janakpur-Ayodhya bus service. Modi also inaugurated a “Ramayan Circuit” to boost tourism on both sides of the India-Nepal border. “This will act as a foundation for strong people-to-people ties between our two countries,” Modi said.
After Janakpur trip, Modi travelled to Kathmandu where he held bilateral talks with his Nepali counterpart K.P. Sharma Oli and another civic reception. Modi made a point to praise Kathmandu’s cultural, historical, and religious sites and their links with India since time immemooral. As part of that theme, Modi visited Muktinath, one of the famous religious sites of Nepal, and offered puja in Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu.
Modi rushed to Nepal a month after he rolled out the red carpet to his Nepali counterpart Oli from April 6 to 8. What promoted Modi to both host Oli and then visit Nepal within such a short span of time? India wants to restore its influence in Nepal, which witnessed a sharp decrease mainly after Nepal promulgated its constitution in 2015. After the Left Alliance secured two-third of votes in the national elections held in 2017 and formed Nepal’s government, New Delhi is taking a series of measures to improve ties with the Oli-led government. Modi’s visit is the latest step.
If it is not possible to restore ties to the same level that existed before 2015, Modi intends to at least give the message — both to his home constituency and to China — that India still enjoys a special relationship with Nepal and other countries cannot compete with it. Opposition parties in India are criticizing Modi’s foreign policy, saying that due its failure China is increasing its influence in Nepal and in other South Asian countries.
The 84th plenary session of the opposition Indian National Congress (INC), held in March, heavily criticized the Modi government’s neighborhood policy. The resolution on foreign policy passed by the INC plenary says, “Congress notes with concern that India is confronting a major challenge in the Sub-Continental neighborhood. Never before in Independent India’s history, has the country been so diminished in its immediate periphery…. We have created spaces in our neighboring countries through episodic engagement, which has allowed other powers, in particular China, to entrench themselves.” The resolution listed Nepal along the Maldives, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka as countries where “recent developments… are a matter of serious concern.”
As general elections are due to be held in India in 2019, Modi is under pressure to improve ties with neighboring countries to prevent this issue from becoming a prominent campaign point for opposition parties.
Modi also personally wanted to restore the image and goodwill in Nepal that he enjoyed in 2014. When Modi was in Kathmandu this month, people remembered the 2015 blockade at the India-Nepal border. During his visit, social media was filled with demands that Modi apologize for the blockade.
By contrast, when Modi visited Nepal in August 2014 as the first Indian prime minister to visit the country in 17 years, he was warmly greeted by the Nepali people. While addressing Nepal’s parliament, Modi said, “Since the day I entered the Prime Minister’s office, strengthening relationship with Nepal is one of the top priorities of my government.”
Modi’s speech influenced lawmakers and impressed the Nepali people. He held up Nepal’s peace process as an example in the international arena and reiterated that Nepal is the country where the apostle of peace in the world, Buddha, was born. “This is the land of Sita and Janak. Nepal-India relations are as old as the Himalayas and the Ganga,” Modi told Nepal’s parliament.
The tone set by Modi on Nepal-India relations during his two visits in 2014 (in August and November) was not continued in the subsequent years. As noted above, as Nepal headed toward the finalization of its new constitution, Nepal-India relations began to sour. Bilateral relations reached their low ebb when Nepal promulgated its constitution in fall 2015, which resulted in the unofficial blockade. Afterward, Modi lost all the goodwill in Nepal that he had earned during his previous visits. Now Modi is struggling to restore his image.
Modi also seems to think that India’s bilateral relationship with Nepal could be further extended under a strong government led by Oli. Oli, who commands the support of two-thirds of lawmakers in Nepal’s parliament, is capable of making tough decisions. With strong governments in both countries, now is an appropriate time to resolve some of the outstanding bilateral issues that have been pending for a long time.
There are also some similarities between the two leaders. Both put economic development as their priority; both define themselves as nationalist leaders; and both are powerful prime ministers with strong command in their respective parliaments.
There are dozens of longstanding bilateral issues between two countries. Modi and Oli held intensive discussions on these points, such as minimizing Nepal’s trade deficit with India, the exchange of demonetized Indian notes held by Nepali citizens, resolving issues related to border management, providing more air routes to Nepal, and resolving flooding issues.
Strong willpower at the top political level of both countries could be instrumental to resolving such long-standing pending issues. The settlement of those issues will decide the future direction of Nepal-India relations.
But Nepal is not pinning all its hopes on India. After a series of engagement with India, Oli informed Nepal’s parliament on May 13 that he will soon visit China.
Kamal Dev Bhattarai is a Kathmandu-based writer and journalist who writes on foreign policy issues