The 18th Saarc summit Nepal is hosting comes during a state of turmoil — a mix of domestic political flux and concerns in some member countries, including India, about the safety of their leaders. Nepal’s top leaders are now looking for a face-saver so as to admit in public that the constitution will not be delivered by the January 22 deadline. But the cancellation of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s planned visits to three shrines outside Kathmandu — Janakpur, Lumbini and Muktinath — with only a few days to go, has cast the first shadow over the chances of the summit proceeding smoothly. It gives India reason enough to infer all is not well in Nepal and that there’s a trust deficit at the bilateral level.
India had warned about inadequate safety measures for Nepali leaders and Indian diplomats in a letter sent in September. New Delhi had also been raising concerns about Modi’s safety. The cancellation is an indicator that, in India’s assessment, security is not up to the mark. A week earlier, a senior Indian diplomat is believed to have advised Nepal’s leaders to keep their differences low-key and not oppose Modi’s planned public addresses at Janakpur and Lumbini, since that might lead to the cancellation of his trips to the shrines.
Apparently, the government in Kathmandu fell in line, despite the ruling coalition’s clear internal differences on letting Modi address the public outside the capital. “Secularists”, including the Maoists, were opposing it, fearing Modi might lend support to pro-Hindutva forces.
Meanwhile, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif insisted on bringing his own car and refused to use the fleet of Mercedes and BMWs Nepal is hiring from India. Sharif has also asked for an additional room within his suite at the Soaltee Hotel, as he needs his physician close at hand.
These developments come along with media reports alleging largescale corruption and negligence in the construction of roads in the capital and renovation of the venue. Modi’s cancellation is likely to trigger another blamegame within the coalition and a political fallout after the summit.
Such disarray would perhaps have caused less concern if Nepal’s parties had shown a little sincerity after pledging to deliver the constitution by consensus. In fact, the principal ingredients of the future constitution, like republicanism, federalism and secularism, have now fallen apart.
The ruling coalition as well as the Maoists fear that India will review after its Nepal policy soon after Modi’s visit, which coincides with the inevitable collapse of the second round of constitution-making in Nepal.
There is also speculation that the Indian embassy in Kathmandu could witness a largescale overhaul, after “losing” its trusted neighbour that has now become a playground for international forces, some of them inimical to India’s interests.
Nevertheless, Nepal is consulting India on whether to upgrade China to full Saarc membership from its current observer status. China’s entry would have serious implications. Beijing may even be seen as a natural leader, given China’s popularity and presence in and partnership with many countries, including Nepal. This is not something India would be comfortable with. Yet, the convergence of the Asian giants on development partnership may bring about the necessary consensus, too.
For Nepal itself, the Saarc summit will hopefully just come and go. But for Kathmandu to retain its credibility in the region and beyond, its political leaders need to convince others that Nepal is not going to plunge into chaos. How Delhi assesses the cause and effect of the cancellation of Modi’s trips to the shrines will have a bearing on Nepal.
If and how India undoes some of the radical changes in Nepal midwifed by the UPA government, and how soon Nepal’s leaders realise their failure, will offer clues to Kathmandu’s future course. For Modi, the challenge also lies in assessing the damage the UPA’s Nepal policy did to bilateral relations, including generating hostility towards India, and taking corrective measures.
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