India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is on a foreign visit again. This time to neighbouring Nepal, a country he has visited three times in the past four years.
When Modi visited Nepal in August 2014, it was the first bilateral visit by an Indian prime minister in 17 years. He visited Nepal again in November 2014 to attend the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit.
The PM's ongoing two-day visit is especially intriguing because it comes on the heels of Nepal Prime Minister KP Oli's India visit in April. With all these frequent high-profile visits, one would expect a strong and healthy bilateral relationship to exist between India and Nepal. But, that is far from the truth.
At best, Modi’s ongoing visit is being seen as an attempt to "heal old wounds" and "restore neighbourly ties".
From the Muktinath Temple visit. I thank the people for their affection. pic.twitter.com/GPdJve4cSr— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) May 12, 2018
Visit to Janaki temple is a memorable experience for me, PM @narendramodi wrote in the Visitor's Book at the Janaki temple. pic.twitter.com/MSlvEqPs25— Raveesh Kumar (@MEAIndia) May 11, 2018
Some more glimpses from my visit to the Muktinath Temple. pic.twitter.com/ecwMXkHeX4— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) May 12, 2018
Besides formal meetings with Nepal’s political leaders, Modi is spending most of his time doing what he likes the most - religious politics for domestic audience. He was seen offering prayers at Janaki Mandir, Muktinath Temple, Pashupatinath temple and also inaugurating with his Nepali counterpart, the Ramayana Circuit Bus Route, connecting Janakpur (birthplace of Sita) and Ayodhya (birthplace of Rama).
However, it is highly doubtful that such religious symbolism will make the communist Prime Minister of Nepal abandon his pro-China tilt and become friendlier with India or its Hindu nationalist prime minister.
It's worth mentioning here that PM Oli was the main force behind Nepal getting a secular Constitution in 2015, which was then adamantly opposed by the Modi government.
By projecting himself as a "Hindu leader", Modi will not be successful to get the approval of the Nepali population. First of all, there has not been any significant religious-political mobilisation in Nepal, unlike India, which has witnessed a surge in Hindutva forces in recent years.
Moreover, the people of Nepal have not forgotten or forgiven PM Modi for subjecting them to a terrible humanitarian crisis by enforcing an unofficial blockade on their landlocked country while it was recovering from the impacts of a devastating earthquake.
Just before Modi’s visit to Nepal, #BlockadeWasCrimeMrModi was trending among twitter users of that country. Even as the Indian media focus on Modi’s meeting with political leader and visits to Hindu temples, Journalists in Nepal have been talking about the outcome of recently promised railways and waterways links between the two countries.
There have been talks between China and Nepal for the construction of China-Nepal railway for many years now. However, not to annoy India, Nepal was unwilling to go ahead with that plan. But after India’s unofficial blockade in 2015, Nepal decided to sign an agreement with China in March 2016 for rail link between the two countries. China’s railway is expected to reach Nepal’s border by 2020. Since December 2017, Chinese engineers have also started conducting initial survey inside Nepal for the construction of the rail link.
To counter China, last month, Modi promised both rail as well as water links between the two countries. As per the plan, the railways will link India’s Raxaul to Nepal’s Kathmandu, and for the waterways, Koshi river will be developed.
Besides advancing discussions on these two projects, Modi and Oli are also laid the foundation stone of the long-awaited Arun III hydro-electric project developed by India’s SJVN.
However, Modi is wrong if he thinks that the declaration of mega-projects will bring Nepal closer to India. Going by history, it has not been easy to implement Indian projects in Nepal. The construction of the Arun III dam was supposed to start in the 1990s. Environmental opposition, local politics in Nepal and fluctuating bilateral relations have been the primary reasons for the delay of many Indian projects. Adding to the existing challenges, there have been terror attacks on these projects in recent months, most likely by some Maoist groups.
It is time for Modi and India to think beyond mega-projects while defining bilateral relations with Nepal.
The other problem is that Modi is trying to outcompete China in Nepal with the help of mega-construction projects. This is nothing but playing into the hands of China. China is a global leader when it comes to building mega-projects, it can build such projects much faster, at a lesser cost and probably better than India.
By not accepting its limitations, the Modi government has also substantially increased its financial aid to Nepal in 2018, compared to 2017, hoping to counter China.
China’s economy is five times bigger than that of India. Modi needs to realise while China has promised to invest $8.3 billion in roads and dam projects in Nepal, India’s commitment is only $317 million.
It's high time Modi realises that his so-called "Modi Doctrine", despite such high-octane visits, has failed to improve India's bilateral relations with its key neighbours, particularly with Nepal. His personalised and much-imposing style focused on transactions has done more harm than good to build partnership with the leaders in India’s neighborhood. His emphasis on soft-power of religion and yoga has its limitations. China not just enjoys the backing of Pakistan but that of other South Asian nations too. Beijing has already surrounded India with its friends and allies.
The only way for India to win back its friendship with countries like Nepal is to abandon the "Modi Doctrine" and adopt the core principles of the two-decade old "Gujral Doctrine". Former PM IK Gujral, when he was the foreign minister of India in 1996-1997, had clearly outlined his five-point road map to build trust between India and its neighbours and the basis of it was the unilateral accommodation. Particularly, with all its neighbours besides Pakistan and China, “India is not supposed to ask for reciprocity, but to give and accommodate what it can in good faith and trust”.
Modi should not make India’s support to Nepal and other neighboring countries in building dams, roads, railways or waterways, conditional upon their relations with China or even Pakistan. At this time, while the China-Pakistan axis is getting increasingly stronger, and China has become a global power, India has to find ways to rebuild trust and good faith with its traditional friendly neighbours. And that will not come in exchange of fear, bribe or blackmail, it has to be carefully built with mutual understanding, respect and compassion.
Unless Modi realises this, these repeated high-profile visits to Nepal are not going to bring any desired results.