Narendra Modi wowed Nepal’s legislators and public alike during his recent visit even as he gave heartburn to the security detail by thrice alighting from his bulletproof limousine to work the crowd. His main successes during the rushed sojourn were to lift the bilateral relationship back on to the political plane, and to nudge Nepal’s much-delayed constitution-writing towards conclusion by removing perceptional barriers in relation to what all-powerful India was said to want.
In the afterglow of the Indian Prime Minister’s trip, the stocktaking begins as to what was said or left unsaid, and what the visit meant not just for Nepal but for the South Asian region as a whole. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit has just been announced for November 26-27 in Kathmandu, and the attitude and vision of India’s newly elected Prime Minister can help inform the direction of South Asian cooperation.
Mr. Modi’s coming to Nepal barely two months into office obviously had its origins in his personal regard for the Himalaya range and associated Vedic lore. Emerging from the Pashupatinath ‘garba griha’ in saffron robe and sandalwood-paste tika, the Prime Minister of constitutionally secular India was playing brashly to the home audience, trying to broaden the appeal of political Hindutva among the followers of both Ram and Shiva.
The visit was also an attempt to win over Kathmandu’s political class, given the jostling it has suffered lately at the hands of India’s intelligence agencies, something known but largely ignored by the Nepal-watchers in New Delhi. Further, this reaching out to Kathmandu was obviously done with an eye to Beijing’s expanding engagement with all South Asian countries.
The Prime Minister started his extempore address before Parliament on August 3 by reading out some lines in Nepali. His Hindi delivery with its Gujarati intonation found subliminal appreciation among the speakers of Nepali, which is linguistically close.
It is a sad reminder of how far the Nepali polity has regressed over the decade of Maoist conflict and lengthy transition that the parliamentarians responded with applause when Mr. Modi referred to the sovereign status of Nepal. His assurances on non-interference were an effort to make amends for the hyperactivity of intelligence personnel activated and allowed a free rein by earlier Indian Prime Ministers. It is up to Kathmandu’s political class and civil society to manage this unexpected positive turn of events and to prevent another regression.
Mr. Modi sounded like a constitutionalist tutor when he reminded the members of Parliament (which also serves as Constituent Assembly) about the long-term impact of their effort, even emphasising the significance of misplaced commas and full stops. Drafting a constitution, he noted, was the modern-day equivalent of the ancients penning the Vedas and Upanishads and had to be done with ‘hrishi-man’ sensibility.
Constitution writing being the major challenge before the polity, a result of communitarian polarizations, Mr. Modi sought to tackle some impressions about India’s role. His most significant utterance was to hope that Nepal would emerge soon as a federal, republican democracy — a rebuff of the royalists who expected that the Hindutva-oriented dispensation in New Delhi would support reviving some form of monarchy.
The Prime Minister also referred to the plains of Nepal by the geographical term Tarai rather than the politico-cultural Madhes, the latter incorporating much of the plains communities but not all. This intentional nomenclature was obviously meant to signify New Delhi’s neutrality on the most controversial topic before the Constituent Assembly, which is the delineation of federal provinces.
The well-briefed Prime Minister went into the minutiae of the bilateral relationship, showing concern for the high phone call charges between the two countries, which affected the large job migrant community of Nepali citizens in India. Mr. Modi, pushing for a petroleum pipeline into Nepal, expressed surprise that tanker trucks were still in use. His repeated reference to Lumbini as birthplace of Buddha was meant to defuse conspiracy-seeking in Nepal about supposed Indian designs on the matter.
Outside of Parliament on Monday morning, the televised images of Mr. Modi’s Pashupatinath darshan, his speech, attire and religious obeisance, clearly bolstered the Hindu traditionalists in Nepal as they would have in India. As a country of multiple, cross-cutting and syncretistic communities, Nepal can ill afford the construction of monolithic faith-based political identities of the kind that India’s Prime Minister seems to prefer.
Beyond the atmospherics, which were certainly not absent of meaning, the visit lacked sizeable agreements on the economy and infrastructure. This was primarily due to ennui that has overcome Nepal’s government apparatus as well as the two largest parties (the Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML), both seeming to have forgotten their founding philosophies. Meanwhile, such is the lack of trust between the two parties that they could not even agree on appointing an ambassador to New Delhi prior to the Indian Prime Minister’s arrival. It does not help that each party is wracked by factionalism while their chiefs are both very ill, one battling lung cancer and the other with a persistent kidney ailment.
Indeed, what did not go well with the visit had mainly to do with the lack of preparedness of the Nepali side, including the inability to sign a much-awaited power trade agreement. A win-win situation is possible for both countries in developing Nepal’s flowing water, but this requires Kathmandu to be in a position to negotiate deals not only on energy but also the downstream benefits of stored water — for irrigation, urban use, inland navigation, and even a clean-up of the Ganga. It was significant that when the loquacious Mr. Modi assured Parliament (to more applause) that India was willing to help develop and buy Nepal’s hydropower, he did not refer to the value of stored water.
The lack of coordination is evident everywhere, as when Mr. Modi announced a $1-billion dollar concessional loan package for Nepal — the challenge lies in Kathmandu’s ability to take advantage of this facility, as with the soft loan windows of the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB). As for good sense, that was clearly lacking on the part of the Nepali delegation when it sought a revision of the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship.
The 1950 treaty is a practically defunct document, and sleeping dogs should not be woken up. Negotiation on a new treaty document would inevitably affect the privileged access Nepali citizens have to property and employment in India (a concession made to save the smaller economy from inundation). It would also needlessly jeopardise the unique open border — and an example to the rest of South Asia that has also served as a safety valve for Nepal’s impoverished hill and plain people. It is unbelievable that the Nepali delegation sought to have a Pandora’s box of the 1950 treaty opened.
Narendra Modi’s Nepal trip seemed to be personal, political and geopolitical, all rolled into one. The visit did gladden many Nepalis but left open the question as to how the Prime Minister plans to reach out to the other South Asian neighbors, including those that remain acutely aware of the Gujarat carnage of 2002 that happened under his watch.
By personality, as was evident in Kathmandu, the Indian Prime Minister is the kind who overwhelms with his sharp memory, vehement oratory and propensity for domineering unilateralism. His focus on South Asia seems to emerge partly from the technocrat’s desire for regional connectivity and shared growth. It may also be based on inherited notions of Jambudwipa, Árya`varta or Akhanda Bharat, in which case the former Chief Minister of Gujarat will need to study the nature of modern-day nationalism among the South Asian neighbors, akin to that of India’s.
Regional cooperation among nation-states requires consultative diplomacy, and a better trigger than invitations sent to one’s swearing-in ceremony that are hard to refuse. Mr. Modi’s announcement at Sriharikota on June 30 that India would launch a “SAARC satellite” to support health and education, would have gained more traction if his counterparts in Dhaka, Colombo or Islamabad had been informed.
The SAARC organisation has been practically moribund all these years. The arrival of an Indian Prime Minister talking of connectivity and growth offers opportunity for the evolution of the kind of regionalism that ushers in prosperity, including through SAARC and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) regimes. It is indeed true that cross-border cooperation would help improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people, especially those living in the “arc of poverty” between the Brahmaputra and the Indus, including the entire stretch of the Ganga.
If Narendra Modi tries to go it alone on SAARC, he may be disappointed for the lack of reciprocity to his enthusiasm. That would be unfortunate. As with Nepal, so with all of South Asia — Mr. Modi has it within his power to push for “better days” regionally. For this, we have to understand him, and he has to understand South Asia.
(Kanak Mani Dixit is a Kathmandu-based writer and civil rights activist, and editor of the Himal Southasian magazine.)
This article first appeared in The Hindu, a leading newspaper of India. Click here to go to the original.