Modi, India and Nepal: Murari Sharma

The newly elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid his second foreign visit to Nepal, after Bhutan. He won hearts and minds of India-weary Nepalis with some concrete offers and many right sound bites. Suddenly even the arch-anti-Indian establishment in Kathmandu seemed swooned by Modiphilia. The question is: Will this suddenly discovered bonhomie last?

This is one of the occasions when the establishment Nepalis have found little to accuse India about. Modi was a whiff of fresh air in otherwise stale Nepal-India relations. Often, the main South Block interlocutor has been the joint secretary, north. Only occasionally have Indian politicians crossed the line in the sand drawn by the South Block.

In the last couple of decades only thrice before have Indian prime ministers veered from the bureaucratic line on New Delhi’s Nepal policy. The first time was when  Prime Minister Morarji Desai agreed to separate the trade and transit treaties, which was a longstanding demand of Nepal, despite the bureaucracy’s preference to continue with a single treaty covering both.

The second time Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral proclaimed that India would engage with its smaller and friendly neighbors without insisting on reciprocity, and it came to be known as the Gujaral Doctrine. The the bureaucracy did not like and ditched as soon as Gujral stepped down.

However, it is wrong to believe that the Indian bureaucracy is anti-Nepal. It is not. I have dealt with the South Block and found most people friendly towards Nepal and willing to help us. But like all bureaucracies, Indian bureaucracy is also status quo-ist. It does not want to shake things up. It wants stability and hates change in the way things are viewed or done, which poses new challenges for it. This is true for the Nepali bureaucracy as well, of which I have been a part for more than two decades.

Now it is Modi who has crossed the comfort zone set by the bureaucrats.

Modi said India wanted to help Nepal, not interfere in its affairs, and asked it to take leadership in shaping the course of the country. He repeatedly said Gautam Buddha was born in Nepal, in contrast to what he had recently mentioned in India. He announced a development loan of one billion US dollars for Nepal; cooperation in the energy, transport and agriculture sectors; increase in scholarships. He also pledged to start the execution of the Pancheshwar Multipurpose Project within a year.

Sometimes, the delivery of message becomes more important than the message itself. India has been supporting Nepal in walks of life, and Modi’s promise is not necessarily out of the ordinary. But he mesmerized the Nepalis with the freshness of his delivery, and it touched Nepali hearts and minds.

He delivered his message in the Constituent Assembly, part of it in Nepali, looking straight into the eyes of the Assembly members; refused to read the written text prepared by the South Block; and conveyed his message in a folksy way with a fair dose of humor. His HIT (highway, Information-way and Transmission-way) underlined the priority poignently and folksily. His quip about youth and water that they leave the hills was both reveling and funny.

By paying humble obeisance and making generous contribution to Pashupatinath, Modi won the backing of the religious sector. He asked Nepalis from the hills and the plains that Nepal needs to develop in its entirety, and regionalism will not be good for Nepal.

So, there was a message for everyone and the message was conveyed in a way that everyone liked, except the very fringe elements, though he had problems back home. His foes criticized him for his generous homage to Pashupatinath.

Not least, Jit Bahadur Saru Magar, Modi’s Nepali godson, whom he brought along with him, sent a powerful symbol and message that he knew something about Nepal and he cared about it. Now the question is whether he will be able to deliver on his pledges and symbols.

It will difficult for Modi to loosen the grip of the Indian Congress Party on the state and its bureaucracy. The ICP has ruled India much of the time after its independence in 1947. State functionaries would not be fully committed to Modi’s program and approach until they believe the Modi phenomenon is going to last, and the ICP will be back in next five years.

My sense is the Indian bureaucracy is waiting to see just how far Modi goes. They want to know whether he is going to follow Gujral, strong in principles and weak in implementation. At the same time, it is aware that Modi could be a different game in town. His party has a majority in the parliament and, with the coalition partners, his strength increases even further, while their longtime mentor, ICP, was seriously humiliated in the recent general election. And he has already reduced the size of the cabinet.

On the most contentious issues, the revision of the 1950 treaty, Modi has followed the existing line. India has always expressed its willingness to revise the treaty, which most Nepalis believe is unequal. However, it insists that when the 1950 treaty is revised, all subsequent treaties founder on the mother treaty should also be revised.

The 1950 treaty is already revised in practice. Both sides have failed to observe the treaty provisions. India has not consulted with Nepal on its security issues and does treat Nepali nationals and businesses as Indian nationals and businesses. Neither does Nepal provide such treatment to Indian subjects. But many Nepalis are worried that India could insist on the literal implementation of the treaty anytime. The treaty is outdated and needs to be revised to reflect this reality, more than to make it equal.

In fact, the treaty itself is equal. What makes it unequal is a set of issues: The signatories from the two sides and letters signed afterwards as part of the treaty. But the issue at the core but publicly unsaid is the burden of equality a smaller partner could not impose on the bigger partner and could not bear equally.

Say for instance, if India allows 1% Nepalis to settle in India, that would be hardly 2.6 million people in a much bigger area. If Nepal has to accommodate 1% of Indians, it will have to accept 12.5 million people in a much smaller area. So what Nepal is really looking for equality-plus, in which ii enjoys the existing benefits while India free it from similar obligations and from Indian security umbrella..

This is essential for Nepal and difficult to deliver for India. Canada enjoys such equality-plus relations with the United States. Washington has agreed to such provisions, for Canada and Mexico are the only two countries American shares common border with. India shares its border with 10 countries, all but China smaller than itself. All other small neighbors will ask for the equality-plus provisions for them as well.

While this issue, complex as it is, awaits an amicable compromise, other areas of cooperation should be pursued with vigor and determination. When the United States opened its door to China, Beijing said the Taiwan issue could wait for another 100 years. Now America and China have become the biggest trading partners and much of American deficit financing is backed by Chinese money.

What Modi is able to deliver in action will depend as much on India as it will on Nepal. However, there is little room for confidence on Nepal’s part. About a year ago, an officials of the Ministery of External Affairs had said to Nepali journalists that Nepali leaders never raise issue to national importance; they only talk about their personal interest.

Modi has opened the door. It is for our leaders to use the door to the mutual benefits of the two countries, while protecting national interest without engaging in unhelpful polemics, which have already started.


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