Amidst the all-engaging focus on the Karnataka poll, the prime minister paid a much-needed, and successful, visit to Nepal. After the recent cooling off, it was important for both the countries to reset relations on an even keel. The objective seems to have been achieved. Time was not long ago when Kathmandu had more or less outsourced its foreign policy to New Delhi. And New Delhi, in turn, behaved like the proverbial big brother, or, at least, was seen to be doing so by ordinary Nepalis.
There is little doubt that India displayed a lack of sensitivity in its handling of Nepal over the years—as it had done in its handling of ties with other neighbours. But things changed once China entered the equation with all its superior military and economic might. And whether it was Sri Lanka or Maldives or Nepal and even Bangladesh, the accumulated anger and antipathies of decades came to the fore, with all these neighbours playing off China against India to get a better deal for themselves and to enjoy a good degree of autonomy in the exercise of their foreign policy.
Particularly in the case of Nepal, India’s relations took a sharp dip with the fall of the monarchy and the rise of the communists in the land-locked nation’s polity. The 2015 Madhesi protests over the making of the new constitution of Nepal and the unofficial blockade by India and the resulting shortages of petrol and diesel and other essential goods was a low point between the two countries. However, the not-so-subtle arm-twisting by China, which exploited its superior economic and military might to erode the sovereignty of Nepal, seems to have spurred a rethink by Kathmandu to reset the ties with India, its immediate neighbour with centuries of religious, cultural, social and economic bonds. Tens of millions of Nepali citizens work in India and freely move between their native land and the country of their work.
Besides, the glue of common religious bonds is so strong that it is hard to conceive ordinary Nepalis taking to a godless China as easily as they do to India. Indeed, on his latest visit to Nepal, his third since he became prime minister in 2014, Modi paid well-publicised obeisance at the most prominent temples. He began with a visit to the Janaki Temple in Janakpur on the Nepali side of the border with Bihar. And announced a Janakpur-Ayodhya bus service. He also offered prayers at the Muktinath temple, sacred for both Hindus and Buddhists, on Nepal’s border with Tibet. And, of course, while in Kathmandu he visited the famous Pashupatinath temple. (Indeed, it was churlish of the Congress Party to protest against Modi’s temple visits in Nepal, suggesting that he did this with an eye on the Hindu vote in the on-going poll in Karnataka.) But these optics were meant to bolster the real objective of the prime ministerial visit, which was to clear the miasma of distrust and doubts that had built up in recent years, especially when an avowedly anti-India K P Oli was in the driver’s seat as Nepal’s prime minister.
Admittedly, even Oli seems to have realised the Chinese designs to subvert the independence of Nepal through its use of cash and intimidation. Superior connectivity with China through the controversial Belt and Road project was predicated on Nepal’s loss of freedom of action in its internal and external affairs.
In this backdrop, the show of bonhomie between Oli and Modi suited both neighbours. It is remarkable that on his visit, Modi inaugurated several projects, notably a record 900 megawatt hydro power project. What is also not without significance is the attempt to disrupt the Indo-Nepal cooperation with a mysterious blast set off on the project site a couple of days before the two prime ministers formally laid its foundation stone.
There is no denying that there are elements in Nepal which remain hostile towards India and are keen to push their country into the Chinese orbit. Given the age-old ties between India and Nepal, creating artificial barriers on the basis of nothing better than money and military power is bound to prove difficult. Cultural and religious bonds invariably triumph over sheer cash. However, India has to be constantly on watch that its enemies in Nepal do not succeed in creating a wedge, raising the spectre of big brother to push Nepal into the arms of China. Modi’s visit succeeded in reassuring Nepal that India means well and is determined not to repeat the mistakes of a gone-by era when the Indian ambassador in Kathmandu tended to preen himself as the ultimate boss of Nepal.