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Mainstream, VOL LII No 34 August 16, 2014 - Independence Day Special

Modi’s Visit to Nepal: An Assessment

Friday 15 August 2014

by Sangeeta Thapliyal

India’s relations with Nepal got a new fillip with Prime Minister Modi’s visit on August 3, this month. Modi’s popularity had cut across party lines in Nepal. He reached out to the common man. ‘Mayavi Modi’,‘Modimay Nepal’ were the expressions used by media to describe this phenomenon.

There was a media hype in both India and Nepal that an Indian Prime Minister was visiting Nepal after a gap of 17 years. The last 17 years in Nepal had seen political instability due to the Maoist insurgency, changes in governments, removal of the monarchy by the people’s movement and elections to the Constituent Assembly to write a new Constitution. In this period of political instability India did not want to be perceived in Nepal as interfering in its domestic politics and also in government formation. All the political forces in Nepal consider the other to be closer to India and want India to use its influence in controlling the other forces. Hence, when one hears Nepal’s political leadership talk about wanting India to give friendly advice, it usually begins with controlling the opponent and ends with support to itself. India’s dilemma is: where does friendly advice end and interference begin in the Nepalese perception. Modi said that India wanted Nepal to develop its own political course and will develop relations with governments irrespective of ideology. In fact, while addressing the Constituent Assembly Modi stated that “India would always support Nepal’s sovereign right to choose its own destiny”.

The domestic politics in the two countries have immense impact in shaping their relations. India’s policy towards Nepal has made a dramatic shift from twin pillars approach to ‘people’s choice’. Both the choices in the foreign policy sprang from the changes in the domestic politics of Nepal. In 1947, India had arrived on the political scene as an independent democratic country from the colonial past. Closely following were the political events in Nepal where a political shift had taken place from the Rana regime to a multi-party democracy. In 1950, the events brought a combination of monarchy and multi-party democracy to the centre-stage of politics. With the Indian mediation a compro-mise was reached that brought King Tribhuvan to power and the Ranas along with the Congress formed the Cabinet with Mohun Shumsher as the Prime Minister. This policy of twin pillar of democracy was supported by India in 1950 and later in 1990 with a major diplomatic break-through for India to help Nepal bring political stability. This was the phase of special relationship between the two countries.

In 1990, the people’s revolution overthrew the Panchayat government and instead accepted the twin pillars of democracy consisting of constitutional monarchy and multi-party democracy. In 2006, the agitating people and political parties, through yet another movement, removed the constitutional monarchy and declared Nepal as a federal democratic republic. The people had brought in changes in the political course of Nepal. Resultantly, India’s policy towards Nepal emphasised on ‘people’s choice’. These domestic changes had a strong impact on the bilateral relations between India and Nepal.

Presently, there are changes visible in the domestic politics of both the countries. There seems to be stability in Nepal after the second Constituent Assembly-cum-Parliament elections in 2014. All the major parties are in agreement of writing the Constitution by January 2015. They consider that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would be strong and decisive on bilateral issues because of its majority in Parliament. The BJP’s emphasis on neighbourhood policy, which is also mentioned in its election manifesto, finds a favourable response in Nepal.

The manifesto also gives importance to the Himalayas. Even though the reference is to the Indian Himalayas, it shows the sensitivity towards the mountains. Himalayas have been considered by the policy-planners and experts as India’s frontiers guarding its heartland. However, looking at the Himalayas and Himalayan states from the prism of security would be one aspect of the reality. The socio-cultural linkages, anthropological links, ecology deserve attention and should be emphasised to understand the region better.

Modi’s visit to Pashupatinath and the scale of prayer ceremony was unprecedented. He donated 2500 kgs of sandalwood to the temple priest as well. He evoked close socio-cultural ties between the two countries. However, it was not a support to the Hindu Right-wing forces in Nepal who have been looking towards the BJP’s support for revival of the monarchy.

The essentiality of socio-cultural ties and religious affinity between the two countries cannot be ignored. These historical bonds are unseen between any two countries in the world. The cultural ties have worked well between the people and leaders of the two countries but it cannot be synchronised with similar foreign policy interests or goals and security interests. Every sovereign country works to the best of its national interests defined by time and context. The cultural links worked best at the people’s level but did not give much space to convergence of political, economic or strategic interests. Over the years we see a shift in the stance of both the countries from emphasis on ‘special relationship’ to ‘friendly ties’ and ‘cordial relations’.

The present Indian bureaucrats, political leadership and policy-planners downplay the cultural similarities between the two countries. There is a perception that overemphasis on the socio-cultural ties as a historical reality would be misinterpreted in Nepal and would givemore prominence to the already preponderant image of India in the region.

Most of the present leadership in India and Nepal treat foreign relations from the prism of realism and national interest and are not overwhelmed by the religious-cultural similarities. The present Indian bureaucrats and politicians treat Nepal as an independent sovereign country with whom relations have to be developed based on mutual interests. They do not have the emotional links that the senior leaders had with Nepalese leaders while participating in the freedom struggle or Nepal’s democratic movement.

Even in Nepal, the bureaucrats and political leaders do not have the emotional baggage of the past. They want to maintain good relations with India in the background of its developing economy, media, and Information technology.

However, in practical terms these socio- cultural relations have created links in each other’s country and they work during critical times.

Modi emphasised on the revival of talks on the Treaty of Peace and Friendship signed between India and Nepal in 1950. The Treaty took into consideration the socio-political, economic and strategic interests of the signatories. A holistic approach was adopted in the Treaty, which took into consideration the external and internal dimensions of the relationship. Even though the countries involved had their own priorities defined by their national interests, emphasis was placed on ‘mutuality’ and their being accommodative to the concerns and sensitivities of the other. Over the years the Treaty has been debated and discussed and has had its own share of controversies. A few in Nepal have been critical of the Treaty and have raised issues related to its revision whereas others have used it as an issue of domestic politics. Despite protestations the Treaty continues to exist even though it is not followed in its true letter.

Officially, the Government of Nepal took the issue of reviewing the Treaty of Peace and Friendship during Prime Minister Manmohan Adhikari’s visit to India in 1994. Kamal Thapa, the former Foreign Minister of Nepal, had also raised the issue of the revision of the Treaty in September 1997. During Prime Minister G.P. Koirala’s visit to India on July-August 2001, the two sides agreed that the Foreign Secretaries would review issues pertaining to the 1950 Treaty. Accordingly, the first meeting of the Foreign Secretaries was held in 2001. There has been no further talk on the Treaty probably because Nepal’s priority has been to take care of its political instability and issues of governance rather than the Treaty talk with India.

India has agreed to review the 1950 Treaty. In fact in April 2010 Indian Embassy in Nepal along with the Nepal Centre for Contemporary Studies had organised a seminar on ‘60 Years of 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship’ in which civil society members, academicians and bureaucrats were invited to deliberate on the Treaty.

The purpose of treaties is to address the interests and concerns of the signatories in a given time and context and if they fall short to address the dynamic international politics then the obvious choice is to upgrade or amend them. Modi’s emphasis on renewal of talks on the Treaty, which was also agreed upon during Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit in end July, was welcomed in Nepal as a goodwill gesture.

An economically stable and prosperous Nepal is favourable to India and vice versa. The mutuality in the relations can help develop interdependence. This was emphasised by Prime Minister Modi through his proposal on Highway, Information and Technology connectivity between the two countries. Concessional loans worth $ 1 billion to build power plants and roads were given to Nepal. India also gave a grant of NRs 69 million grant to Nepal to supply iodated salt to control iodine deficiency diseases.

The business community in both India and Nepal want to trade with each other. The business community in Nepal is aware of the economic growth in India and wants to accrue some benefits through trade and investment. It has been a recognised fact that Nepal has abundant water resources and if generated then India is the potential buyer of electricity. Efforts have been made to use the natural resource for irrigation of the plains of Nepal and north India. Irrigation, flood control and inland navigation are other important areas for cooperation. However, hydropower projects between India and Nepal have been controversial in nature. An agreement on the Pancheswor Multipurpose Power project was signed in 1996 but the two signatories could not agree on the terms of reference (ToR). During Modi’s visit both the countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding amending the ToR on the Pancheshwor Multiple Project and taking forward the work on the Pancheshwar Development Authority by declaring the Pancheshwar Authority Regulations.

Another agreement was signed on cooperation between Nepal Television and Doordarshan, the state-owned television stations of both the countries. In both India and Nepal the media can set the right perceptions and create conducive environment for healthy relations. It is important to develop people-centric interconnectedness.

The deep linkages between the two countries irrespective of the political leadership would play its own determining role. These linkages and associations form their own interests which are not easy to ignore. Cultural linkages would still work at the people’s level and keep on giving acceptability to the Nepalese in the Indian society and vice versa. It is a matter of time to see how the decision-makers in both the countries increase the stakes in each other.

Professor Sangeeta Thapliyal teaches at the Centre for Inner Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.