Commentary: PM Modi’s Visit to Nepal - the Beginning of a New Chapter
Abhigya Langeh

Within a month of the first official foreign trip under taken by Nepal’s new Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli to New Delhi (Apr 6-8, 2018) which came within two months of his assumption of office in February 2018, the Indian Prime Minister Modi paid a three-day (May 11-13) state visit to Nepal. Apart from the rather unusual phenomenon of such exchanges at the highest level taking place in such quick succession, it may also be mentioned here that this was PM Modi’s third visit to that country in the last four years, including his Nov 2014 visit to Kathmandu to participate in the SAARC Summit held there. It is also significant that both these visits (PM Oli’s to New Delhi and PM Modi’s to Nepal) were ostensibly designed for the same purpose, i.e. to further bolster relations between the two countries which had, not so long back experienced some avoidable upheavals.

PM Modi arrived in the holy city of Janakpur, from Patna, offered prayers at the Janaki Temple, addressed a public reception there, announced a Rs. 100 crore development package for the Ramayana Circuit and along with his Nepali counterpart, jointly flagged off a direct bus service between Janakpur and Ayodhya in UP. During his stay in Nepal, PM Modi also visited the Muktinath Temple situated in Mustang district of northwest Nepal as also the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu.

The business part of the visit was summed up in the statement issued by the ministry of External Affairs1 in which it was inter alia stated that:-

• The two Prime Ministers held delegation level talks on 11 May 2018 in an atmosphere of utmost warmth and cordiality that characterizes the deep friendship and understanding between the two countries;
• They agreed to maintain the momentum generated by the visit by taking effective measures for the implementation of all the agreements and understandings reached in the past;
• It was also agreed that effective implementation of the bilateral initiatives in agriculture, railway linkages and inland waterways development;
• They reiterated their resolve to work together to take bilateral relations to newer heights… as well as expanding partnership for socio-economic development on the basis of the principles of equality, mutual trust, respect and mutual benefit;
• The need for regular convening of bilateral mechanisms was emphasised, including Nepal-India Joint Commission at Foreign/External Affairs Ministers level, to review the overall state of bilateral relations, and for the expeditious implementation of the economic and development cooperation projects;
• They underscored the importance of trade and economic ties including Nepal’s concern over growing trade deficit, cooperation to control unauthorised trade, initiate a comprehensive review of the bilateral Treaty of Trade, and to consider amendments to the Treaty of Transit and related Agreements with a view to further facilitating Nepal’s access to the Indian market, enhancing overall bilateral trade, and facilitating Nepal’s transit trade;
• Both underlined the catalytic role of connectivity in stimulating economic growth and promoting movement of people; take steps to enhance the economic and physical connectivity by air, land, and water, expand cooperation in civil aviation sector, including additional air entry routes to Nepal;
• It was resolved to advance cooperation in water resources such as river training works, inundation and flood management, irrigation, and to enhance pace of implementation of ongoing bilateral projects.
• They jointly laid the foundation stone of 900 MW Arun-III hydro-electric project in Nepal. Agreed to enhance bilateral cooperation in power sector in line with the bilateral Power Trade Agreement.

Other official engagements of pm Modi included calls on the President Bidya Devi Bhandari, Vice President Nanda Bahadur Pun and meetings with former PM Sher Bahadur Deuba (NC) and Pushpa Kamal Dahal @Prachanda (Maoist-Center).

Following the visit, the two Prime Ministers also took to the social media platform with PM Modi stating in his tweet that ‘his Nepal visit was historic’; it gave him a great opportunity to connect with the wonderful people of Nepal. He also said that ‘talks with Nepal Prime Minister Oli were productive. New vigour has been added to India-Nepal relations through this visit’2.

Prime Minister KP Oli in his tweet stated, “Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi ji and I have agreed, during Modi Ji’s successful state visit to Nepal, to address the outstanding tasks between the two countries in a time-bound manner”.3

Assessment

Visit of PM Modi as also that of PM Oli to New Delhi last month, should not be assessed purely in terms of the number of agreements signed or assistance packages released. These two interactions, coming close on the heels of Nepal’s historic elections in the second half of last year and the earlier sharp deterioration in bilateral ties during the previous stint of PM Oli (Oct. 2015-Aug. 2016), carried special significance in terms of resetting the relations. This was important to do and both countries realised so, since all real or perceived misunderstandings had to be erased to set the narrative of bilateral relations back on the rails.

It may be recalled that after his New Delhi visit last month, PM Oli had asserted that his Indian visit was 'significant and fruitful', and that "bilateral relations will move forward in a new direction on the basis of equality and mutual interest." Significantly, Oli had also added, that he will not allow Nepali soil to be used against Indian interests. His India visit was successful and interactions here went well4.

Analysts agree that these objectives were admirably achieved during the two exchange visits. By paying a reciprocal visit quickly, Modi wanted to maintain the momentum in ties and ‘truly put past differences behind us’. PM Modi certainly walked the extra distance by reassuring his Nepalese counterpart that his government gave top priority to relations with Kathmandu under his Neighbourhood First Policy5. He also said at the civic reception in Kathmandu, "Nepal has covered a long journey from Yuddh to Buddh (War to Peace). You have left the bullet to opt the ballot way...But this not the destination. You have to go a long way." "You have reached the base camp of the Mt Everest and the main climb is yet to be done, and the way mountaineers are strongly helped by Sherpas to scale the summit, much the same way India is ready to work as the Sherpa for Nepal," he added6.

Prior to the visit, there was considerable speculation in both the Nepalese and Indian media that the ‘China Factor’ could cast a shadow on the Modi-Oli meet in view of the perceived pro-Beijing disposition of Oli and his party Communist Party of Nepal (CPN)-United Maoist Leninist (UML) as also of his major alliance partner (CPM-Maoist Centre). Just before Modi's visit to Wuhan, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi had proposed to his counterpart from Nepal Pradeep Kumar Gyawali, a trilateral cooperation between the three countries in building an economic corridor. Welcoming the 'informal' meet between Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping, Gyawali had told Xinhua, "Nepal is always open and positive toward the concept of trilateral cooperation with China and India in many fields, including economic development”7. This apparently was a mere diplomatic kite-flying game as surely no one expected India to endorse this concept of tri-lateral cooperation, at least not yet. There was nothing in the official statements or social media postings to suggest any discussion on this other than a mention in Oli’s tweet that he would be paying a visit to China (without mentioning details).

Nepal has a number of ongoing projects with Chinese assistance and some more are reportedly on the offer. Nepal has endorsed the One Belt One Road initiative of China and it is likely that most of the Chinese strategic projects in Nepal under this formulation would be packaged as infrastructure, connectivity and power projects. It would be reasonable on the part of India to expect Nepal to keep in mind India’s strategic sensitivities and interests. It would be equally reasonable on the part of India to expect the Chinese side also to factor India’s sensitivities in this regard.

Before concluding, it may be relevant to mention two rather strange incidents that occurred just before PM Modi’s visit. In a rare attack on a foreign mission assets in Nepal, on April 16, a pressure-cooker bomb exploded outside a building of the Indian consulate in the south-eastern city of Biratnagar. In the other incident a blast occurred at the compound wall of the Arun III Hydroelectric Power Plant's office in Khandbari-9, causing minor damage. No one was hurt in these incidents nor any group claimed responsibility. Laying of the foundation stone of the Arun-III jointly by the two PMs through video conferencing, was a listed activity during the visit and proceeded smoothly.

The authorities had deployed some 11,000 security personnel and also closed down the world-famous Annapurna Trekking Route for three days in view of the Prime Minister’s visit to Mustang, where the Muktinath Temple is located. It is hoped that the authorities take serious note of such tendencies, investigate the incidents and take appropriate measures to foil the agenda of forces that want to derail the new Indo-Nepal initiatives.

Endnotes

1. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, New DELHI.
2. Deccan Herald May 12 .
3. Hindustan Times May 13.
4. Indian Express May 12 .
5. The Times of India May 12.
6. Business Standard May 12.
7. First Post May 7.

(The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct).


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