By Lekshmi Parameswaran
Optics has become a major component of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s engagement with other nations. But nowhere has this power of optics been leveraged in a manner that it was than in redefining India-Nepal relations. Modi’s visit to the Sita Temple in Janakpur and the flagging off the bus service from Janakpur to Ayodhya, popularly known as the Ramayana circuit, were done with the stated objectives of strengthening cultural ties between both the nations. But such an approach to foreign policy goes much beyond the use of soft power, as has been ably demonstrated by Modi himself.
When Nepal Prime Minister K P Oli visited India last month, it was seen as a positive step in both the countries burying their hatchet to usher in a new era of bilateral relations. Oli, who enjoys a brute two-thirds majority in Parliament and who was voted to power for the ultra-nationalist stand that he has taken on many issues, was never seen as someone who would warm up to India. His experience of the Indian dispensation during his first term and India’s own miscalculated moves in 2015 were enough to keep the expectations low. But a lot has changed ever since Oli’s India visit. Armed with the strong electoral mandate in his second term, Oli has come across as a leader willing to take risks to maintain Nepal’s strategic autonomy.
The signs of this shift emerged when his government said “no” to China to build the Budhi Gandaki hydroelectricity project that was awarded to a Chinese firm without any tendering by the previous Pushpa Kamal Dahal 'Prachanda'-led government in 2016. Prior to this, when Nepal’s Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali visited China, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi invited India to be a part of development projects in Nepal. That statement also implied an underlying consensus that even if Nepal is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, connectivity to India and access to Indian markets will remain a key in ensuring its success.
However, Modi’s current engagement with Nepal goes much past the China factor. His visits to the Janaki, Pashupatinath and Muktinath temples have sent out a strong imagery of the shared historical and cultural linkages. It is also an exercise in winning back the trust of the Nepali populace. The announcement of Rs 100 crore package to develop Janakpur and the emphasis that Nepal’s figures foremost in India’s Neighbourhood First policy can all be interpreted as steps in bringing back the lost South Asian comity. Once the agreed upon links to Kathmandu and India are operationalised and the work on Arun-III hydroelectricity project is completed, bilateral relations are expected to see renewed vigour.
In addition to this, for Modi and the BJP government, the visit to Nepal serves a strong purpose back home. With the 2019 elections approaching and BJP largely abandoning its development rhetoric, as was seen during the campaign for Karnataka elections, the party is in need of such symbolic overtures that appeals to majoritarian impulses. For a party that has failed to meet its electoral promises, it is a foregone conclusion that the next election will be fought on the politics of polarization. And what better way to do this than taking recourse to Ram and Ram Rajya?
As far as relations with Nepal are concerned, the positive signs that have emerged are commendable. Both sides have agreed to resolve all the outstanding issues before September 19 which is Nepal’s Constitution Day. Now the way forward will be determined by how sensitively India addresses the issues raised by Nepal and how effectively the agreements are followed up. The 1950 Friendship Treaty which requires Nepal to seek India’s permission to import arms from third countries are among the biggest sticking points in bilateral relations. The time has now come for India to recognize Nepal’s strategic autonomy and redefine the ties based on the principles of equal partnership and mutual respect.
(Lekshmi Parameswaran is a Researcher at SPS. She can be contacted at email@example.com)