Modi must win back Nepal’s trust

Using soft power as a diplomatic tool is welcome, not only because India has a vast reservoir of soft power resources to draw on, but also, it has strong religious and cultural bonds with Nepal. PTI file photo

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has chosen India’s religious-cultural commonalities with Nepal for his outreach to the Himalayan republic. During his just-concluded visit to Nepal, Modi flagged off a cross-border bus service linking Janakpur in Nepal with Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. Besides these two towns, 15 others that are part of the proposed “Ramayana circuit” will be linked and developed to boost tourism and people-to-people interaction.

Modi announced a Rs 100 crore package for the development of Janakpur. Using soft power as a diplomatic tool is welcome, not only because India has a vast reservoir of soft power resources to draw on, but also, it has strong religious and cultural bonds with Nepal. India and Nepal have large Hindu populations, who for millennia have drawn on each other’s philosophies, beliefs and practices. However, it is hard to dispel the feeling that Modi went rather overboard with his temple hopping. Once a Hindu state, Nepal is now a secular republic. The main constituents of the ruling Left coalition were at the forefront of the struggle to make Nepal a secular state. Sections in Nepal that are working to undermine the country’s still nascent secularism are believed to have close ties with the Sangh Parivar. In such circumstances, it was rather impolitic of Modi to have set out on this pilgrimage diplomacy.

China’s growing presence in Nepal is of great concern to India. Beijing’s investment pledges dwarf India’s commitments. Additionally, unlike Indian projects that are plagued by delays, Chinese projects are being completed ahead of schedule. During Modi’s visit, the two prime ministers launched the 900-megawatt Arun III project and agreed on timelines for implementing major projects. India may not be able to match China’s deep pockets, but it could outdo Chinese companies with regard to meeting deadlines. This will improve its image as a serious development partner of Nepal. Construction of a railway line linking Raxaul with Kathmandu could go a long way in facilitating travel and trade between the two countries. India must speed up such connectivity projects. With Nepal joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative, India has little time to lose.

Unlike Modi’s visit to Nepal in 2014, when the Nepali people gave him a grand reception as they had great expectations of him, the public mood during his latest visit was sullen. Clearly, memories of the 2015 blockade, when fuel and other shortages brought enormous hardship to the Nepali people, remain vivid in Kathmandu. India has much to do to win back the trust of the Nepali people. The Modi government must ensure that its interactions with Nepali leaders and officials are respectful and mindful of Nepal’s sovereignty. It needs to reach out to Nepali people as well.

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Modi must win back Nepal’s trust

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