The first time Narendra Modi visited Nepal as the Indian Prime Minister (PM) in August 2014, fresh from a landslide election victory at home, he won over the whole country with his charisma and gestures.
He had already created groundwork for his humane image with revelation of adoption of Jeet Bahadur, a Nepali boy, a day before landing in Kathmandu. And he tactfully built on that getting off from his car to speak to the commoners on the street, shaking hands with a few and even walking for a while to soak in the applause from the smitten public.
He started his address to the Constituent Assembly (CA) in Nepali language and received thunderous applause from the CA members for almost every other sentence.
The people frustrated with the failure of Nepali leaders to deliver the constitution six years after the first CA election and lack of any progress even in the second CA were fascinated with his image of a doer, cultivated over a decade as the chief minister in Gujarat. He may well have beaten any Nepali leader in popularity polls among the Nepalis then.
As Modi arrives for his third Nepal visit as Indian PM four years on, the contrast could not have been starker. Civic receptions have been scheduled at multiple places to felicitate Modi reportedly on request of the Indian government conscious of his current image in Nepal. But security agencies would probably be sweating more about how to prevent embarrassing civic demonstrations than actual security threats.
There are already campaigns in the social media against Modi by irate users who are miffed particularly by the felicitations to be bestowed on him in the name of citizens. Many are even calling for a 10-minute blackout later in the evening.
One need not even conduct any poll now to find out who the most hated person for Nepalis currently is.
Plummeting popularity in a neighboring country would never bother most of the government heads. But Modi’s obsession with his image and popularity are legendary, and the apparent Indian request for felicitations, that were not deemed necessary for a popular Modi back in 2014, shows he is bothered.
It is an epic fall from grace for Modi in Nepal and delivers a brutal report card on his much-vaunted ‘neighborhood first’ policy launched by inviting SAARC leaders, including Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif, to his swearing-in ceremony on May 26, 2014.
Four years on, Modi finds himself in an uneasy neighborhood, and relationship with every country in the immediate neighborhood with exception of perhaps Bangladesh, with whom his government signed a historic land exchange deal swapping control of some 160 small pockets of land in each other’s territory, has deteriorated under his watch.
Modi went out-of-the-box to pay a surprise visit to Pakistan on Christmas day 2015 to wish the then PM Sharif on birthday. But a terrorist attack on an Indian Air force base in Pathankot a few days later, allegedly engineered by the Pakistani security establishment, prevented any détente between the neighbors.
Sharif, who wanted a cordial relation with India since his first term as PM two decades back, has since been disqualified for life by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in what is termed by many as a judicial coup by the military, and his successor Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has not showed the same zeal for friendship with India.
Sri Lanka has granted a 99-year lease of the strategic Hambantota port to a Chinese company. The port, built with Chinese aid under China-friendly Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, tellingly has been leased to the company controlled by the Chinese government under President Maithripala Sirisena, elected to the office as a consensus opposition candidate reportedly fielded with Indian blessings to replace Rajapaksa.
Maldives has shunned its decades-old ‘India first’ policy to become the second South Asian country after Pakistan to ratify a free-trade agreement with China while Bhutan after the Doklam standoff last year and reported military buildup there by China this year again, would not be exactly happy about how its outsourcing of foreign policy to India is working.
But the deterioration has been greatest in Nepal that along with Bhutan provides the Himalayan buffer for India from China after annexation of Tibet 67 years ago. Nepal and India are not just neighbors, Modi never forgets to remind, pointing at the millennia of shared history and culture, and repeating his favorite term–roti-beti ka sambandh (relation of bread and daughters/marriage).
Modi undid all the goodwill he earned in his first visit in 2014 by imposing an inhuman blockade in September 2015, less than six months after Nepal was devastated by the earthquake on April 25 expressing dissatisfaction over content of the newly promulgated constitution.
Much has already been written about the blockade, how it changed the dynamics of Nepal’s relationship with India and China, and fortunes of the political parties and leaders in Nepal. So, let’s not walk down that lane again.
Reset seems to be the new buzzword while talking about Nepal-India relationship nowadays. This reset seems to be doing wonders bringing in Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Kathmandu to woo KP Sharma Oli, ironically the single largest beneficiary of the six-month blockade, even before he assumed office as the most powerful elected leader in Nepal’s history.
Leaders of the Madhes-based parties who enthusiastically thronged the Friendship Bridge at Birgunj-Raxaul border protesting against the ‘discriminatory constitution’ to provide alibi for the Indian blockade have voted in the parliament in support of the government led by Oli, their arch-enemy and the principal denier of an ‘inclusive constitution’ circa blockade, without changing even a punctuation mark in that very constitution.
Oli, who won the election riding on the nationalist wave triggered by the blockade Modi imposed, was warmly received by Modi during his India visit last month, and the Oli government is bending over backward to flatter Modi during his two-day Nepal visit starting today.
One cannot change the neighbors and there is nothing wrong in improving relations with India. The two leaders, in fact, must be lauded for trying to rebuild the relationship between the two governments.
But the Nepali people, who suffered during the six months of blockade imposed immediately after the devastating earthquake, seem to be nowhere in the picture as the new-found infatuation between Modi and Oli plays out rather obscenely in the public.
Nepalis across the country, not any top political leader, suffered during the blockade, and the reset, therefore, should also be with the people.
Nepalis have never wished ill for India and have always wanted good relation with India. But trigger-happy India, still clinging on to the colonial mindset and the PMs acting like the viceroys did in British India, has repeatedly imposed blockade on whims.
The last one was imposed by Modi in a fit of rage after Nepal refused to be dictated while promulgating the constitution.
Many say the rage that culminated into the blockade was first triggered when the government refused to allow him his pilgrimage of the Janaki Temple during his second Nepal visit for the 18th SAARC Summit in November 2014.
When Modi phoned Oli to congratulate him on his party’s good showing in the elections, the latter extended him invitation to visit Nepal, including Janakpur and Muktinath.
Felicitation for a guest who is in Janakpur on the government’s invitation should not be grudged. After all, Nepalis want to move forward leaving the blockade behind.
But by seeking another civic reception in Kathmandu after the one in Janakpur, Modi has reminded Nepalis his hegemonic persona and pain of blockade.
Kathmandu was hit the hardest by the blockade and those living in Kathmandu have every right to be angry with the person who imposed it. Seeking an unnecessary second felicitation in the name of citizens who lived in misery for six months of his making adds insult to injury.
In the civic receptions he may again repeat the cliche that Nepal India friendship is as tall as the Himalaya and as deep as the ocean. But the fact is, hundreds of such civic receptions in Modi’s honor and hours of flattering speech by him cannot reset his relationship with the people without acknowledging what he did in 2015.
There are speculations in the Indian media that Modi is visiting Nepal now to woo the Hindu voters in the state of Karnataka, that is going for polls on May 12, through media coverage of his pilgrimage.
He may well have chosen the date with one eye on the assembly elections in Karnataka but it would not be fair to say that Modi, who started his political career as a full-time Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) volunteer, is here solely for political reasons.
Janaki Temple may have political significance for a person elected on a ticket of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that rose after demolishing Babri Masjid to ‘rebuild’ Ram Temple in Ayodhya, and his prayer there may well be a symbolic reminder to the radical Hindu base that he has not given up on the holy grail of Ram Temple.
But there is no denying the fact that the self-proclaimed Shiva-Bhakt is a devout Hindu and is here for his long-cherished pilgrimage of Janakpur and Muktinath Temple as a PM.
One prays not just for blessings but even to seek forgiveness for past sins. One hopes that, during this pilgrimage, he expresses remorse and apologizes for the inhuman blockade to start the reset of relationship with the Nepali people.