Narendra Modi’s bilateral visit to Nepal in August almost created an euphoria in a country where India is not much respected.
Commentary in the media and political circles projected him as someone more interested in development and the journey to prosperity together than someone looking to continue India’s “big brother” attitude.
Months later, Modi retains that popularity as well as visible trust and support, as he prepares to visit the northern neighbour in the last week of November for the 18th Saarc summit. There is hardly any talk about other heads of state or government visiting Nepal in the media or political circles.
The state affairs committee of parliament asked the government to clarify if Modi was going to address public rallies in Janakpur — the capital of mythological king Janak and the birthplace of Sita — after praying at the Ram-Janaki temple there. The committee took up the issue with disapproval, following media reports that Modi was going to make a public address and distribute bicycles to girl students. Would it not be an infringement of Nepal’s sovereignty? What if other heads of state took similar liberty? These questions have apparently been privately raised by many, including President Ram Baran Yadav, some Maoist leaders and others.
“If Modi wants to visit those areas, how could we say ‘no’?” asked Prime Minister Sushil Koirala when the issue was raised in the House committee. Bamdev Gautam, deputy PM and home affairs minister, said, “There is only a felicitation programme in honour of the Indian prime minister and he is neither going to address the public nor distribute bicycles.” But the issue has hardly died down. Interestingly, critics of India’s role and its “interference” in Nepal’s politics have come to Modi’s rescue this time round. K.P. Oli, chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), spoke in a tone different from the deputy PM’s, who is also from the UML: “Modi’s visit will not only boost our bilateral ties, but religious tourism and our economy as well.”
Bihari Krishna Shrestha, a noted social scientist who has often criticised India in the past, says, “We should be celebrating Modi’s emergence as India’s PM and welcoming him wholeheartedly, seizing as many opportunities as possible to hear him speak in Nepal.”
Modi’s speech in Nepal’s parliament, asserting India’s respect for Nepal’s sovereignty and asking leaders from the Tarai to shun a politics based on hatred towards the hills, has put him in a different category of Indian leaders. It’s still not known whether Modi will address the public at shrine cities, including Janakpur, Lumbini and Muktinath, but the speculation has triggered debate.
But the increasing discomfiture in the ruling coalition, and the president and PM, about Modi and the Indian establishment under him has a different background. The UPA government largely motivated and supported Nepal’s political actors to go for sweeping political change.
The Nepali Congress, UML, Maoists and Madhesi parties that dominate parliamentary committees are doubtful about Modi endorsing the same policies and the same non-performing Nepalese political actors. For the record, Modi had said in his address to Nepal’s parliament that India would welcome a pro-federal and republican constitution well within the deadline, in a way that would “be acceptable to all sides”. But there are indications that’s not going to happen.
Modi’s silence on “secular Nepal” and his RSS background are being seen as a possibility of his use of Hindu and Buddhist shrines for “propaganda” in favour of a “Hindu Nepal”, a campaign picking up momentum. The pressure is so high that even Maoist leaders like Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai joined Hindu congregations during the Chhath festival. Maoists and Madhesi parties overstretched caste and ethnic politics and played a major role in dislodging Hinduism as state religion in 2006, which has now triggered a backlash. Former king Gyanendra’s almost 10-day stay in Delhi and his meetings with top RSS and BJP leaders have given sleepless nights to Nepal’s political establishment.
But such discomfiture has hardly motivated the parties to bridge their differences and agree on the constitution. The lack of a constitution, growing radicalism and the resultant uncertainty have ruined the chances of political stability — essential for prosperity and peace. Modi will perhaps emphasise that at the Saarc summit. But he also needs to rediscover allies to build an atmosphere of trust, so that a friendly country’s PM addressing public rallies in cultural cities doesn’t raise suspicion.
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