Modi’s Efforts At Rapprochement
The recent state visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Nepal from May 11 to 12 may be taken as a fence-mending measure on the part of India. The Nepal-India relations, which dipped to an all-time low in 2015-2016 as a result of the unofficial trade embargo imposed on Nepal by India for five months along with the Madhes agitation, thawed somewhat consequent upon the state visit to India by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli last month (April 6-8). Prime Minister Modi’s visit may be taken in the same token: to improve the relations.
Prime Minister Modi collected unprecedented tons of applause from the Nepali leaders and people alike when he visited Nepal in 2014. At the time, he openly praised the Nepalis and recognised Nepal as the birthplace of Gautam Buddha. He even went on to say that the constitution, which was in the drafting stages then, would prove to be a golden chapter not only for Nepal but also for the world as a whole. But when the constitution was promulgated with an overwhelming majority by the then Constituent Assembly in 2015, India just ‘noted’ the constitution and quickly resorted to the implicit trade blockade against Nepal in support of the Madhesi parties who were staging border agitation in protest against some provisions of the constitution.
This time, the people were not enthusiastic about welcoming Prime Minister Modi because they have not forgotten the ordeal they had to suffer three years ago in the form of the implicit blockade for no fault of theirs. On the other hand, Prime Minister Modi kicked off his visit from Janakpur rather than Kathmandu and tempered the visit with religious tones. He offered prayers at Janaki Temple, Muktinath Temple and Pashupatinath Temple.
During the visit, the Ramayan Circuit was jointly inaugurated by Nepal and India and the first bus service between Janakpur and Ayodhya also kicked off. The launch of the Ramayan Circuit is expected to woo tourists to Janakpur, a religious centre of Nepal. Similarly, the foundation stone of the Arun III Hydroelectricity Project was jointly laid by the two prime ministers by remote control. The 900 MW project has been in limbo for years. Nepal will benefit from the project in the form of free electricity, revenue, royalties and taxes. After allowing for free electricity to the tune of 108 MW for Nepal, the remaining electricity will be exported to India. The project is scheduled to be completed in five years and will be returned to Nepal after 25 years.
The two prime ministers also discussed new air routes for Nepal. At present, international aircraft coming to Nepal through India are allowed to enter Nepal via Simara only. Nepal has been demanding air routes through Biratnagar, Janakpur, Bhairahawa, Mahendranagar and other places. In the context of additional international airports in the process of being constructed in Bara (Nijgadh), Bhairahawa and Lumbini, the need for additional air routes has been acutely felt. The two prime ministers agreed to take further measures to enhance economic and physical connectivity by air, water and land.
Many agreements had been made between Nepal and India in the past but most of them have not been implemented. Even if the process is started to implement them, they are not completed in time. In recent times, emphasis has been laid on implementing old agreements rather than ink new ones. To accelerate the implementation of past agreements, a mechanism comprising the Foreign Secretary of Nepal and the Indian Ambassador to Nepal has been developed. During the state visit of Prime Minister Oli to India last month, agreements on constructing railways and inland waterways had been made.
India always says that it is supportive of the development works of Nepal and has also assisted Nepal in its development endeavours. This time too, Prime Minister Modi opined that Nepal was on the list of India’s priorities as per its neighbourhood first policy. He went so far as to say that India’s success hinged on Nepal’s success and India’s happiness lied on Nepal’s happiness.
But as it is, there are many problems with India. Border encroachment, inundation in the Terai due to construction of dams on the border and harassment of the Nepalis in border areas are a few instances at which Nepal takes umbrage. The recent exchanges of visits by the two prime ministers have helped improve the strained relations at the political level but it seems the people-to-people relations are yet to improve. The feeling of resentment of the Nepalis against India has not faded away.
Although the issue of demonetisation of 500- and 1000-denomination Indian rupees was raised during the visit of the Indian prime minister, there is still doubt that the Nepalis will get an exchange facility any time soon given the lackadaisical attitude harboured by India towards the issue. India should have given such a facility to Nepal as a good gesture of bonhomie as soon as the demonetisation process was initiated.
India wants to improve relations with Nepal and other neighbours. The Modi government is under fire from opposition parties for not adopting strong measures to improve relations with its neighbours. It behoves the Modi government to send a positive message to them that it cares for them, which is all the more important in view of the upcoming elections in 2019. Some have viewed the visit of the Indian prime minister to Nepal in this light: the purpose of his visit to religious shrines was to woo votes from the Hindus during the upcoming elections.
If India really regards Nepal as an intimate neighbour, it should improve not only political relations but also people-to-people relations. For this, it should refrain from engaging in acts that go against the interests of the Nepalis or that cause suffering to them. After all, Nepal and India have had very close people-to-people relations from time immemorial. The relations have become frayed due to undesirable acts on the part of India. Now is the right time for India to improve the people-to-people relations by pulling up its socks so that it can improve its tarnished image in Nepal.