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Decoding Narendra Modi's visit to Nepal

Srinivasan Ramani of the Economic and Political Weekly has this to say about Narendra Modi's visit to Nepal: The Narendra Modi government's decision on continuing Indian foreign policy emphasis in Nepal since 2011 had gone down well with the Nepali polity. The emphasis on taking Nepali concerns on the Indo-Nepal Friendship Treaty, support to the constitutional process and unequivocal endorsement to "federal, democratic and republican Nepal" must come as a boost to the internal dynamics seeking change in Nepal's polity. At the same time, it is hoped that the Hindutva orientation of the Modi government does not result in any covert engagement and aid for regressive elements in Nepal's polity who are opposed to change in the status quo in the country.

Rough Transcript:


Rishab Bailey (RB): Hello and welcome to Newsclick. Narendra Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister in 17 years to visit Nepal last week. During his trip he announced a range of confidence and relationship building measures including a USD 1 billion line of credit to Nepal and assistance with building dams and so on and so forth. Now to discuss the Prime Minister's trip to Nepal and its implications for India, we have with us Srinivasan Ramani who works for the Economic and Political Weekly.

Thanks Srini for coming to the Newsclick. Now, why has the Modi government been concentrating on our relationship with our neighbours after inviting the leaders of the SAARC countries to his swearing in, he has done a trip to Bhutan, his External Affairs Minister is now going to Myanmar, he's done his trip to Nepal. Is this because of the fear of China's growing influence on the region and need to re-establish or revitalise India's role in this area?


Srinivasan Ramani (SR): Yeah, one would definitely not rule out China's looming presence in the region. Indian strategic thinkers are always afraid that you know, India would lose its pre-eminent status in the sub-continent if, China starts playing a more assertive role in the region. And there's also a lot of threat perception that you know, frightens a number of Indian strategic thinkers. But apropos the External Affairs Ministry and the Indian establishment, I think there has been an emphasis over last 5 years, half decade also, even during the later part of the UPA second tenure, to focus on the neighbourhood and the emphasis was to ensure that there is stabilisation in the neighbourhood and India's focus should be to be part of this stabilisation processes in various countries across the neighbourhood, that includes Sri Lanka, for example, Nepal and so on. Coming back specifically to Nepal, Nepal you know, is going through a process of constitution writing. The constitution writing was supposed to end 3 years back, it's yet not finished and it's still going on. And this process has gone through a lot of ups and downs and India's role has come under question and so the Indian establishment somewhere in 2011 felt that... they were perceived to have played a very interfering and negative role in the process. And they thought that they should instead play a more facilitative hands of role and adopt a hands of approach and that is the emphasis that has been reiterated by Narendra Modi. There is also this new emphasis on an independent foreign policy in the Narendra Modi government, since it has come to power, slightly moving away from the US-centric foreign policy that the Manmohan Singh government was known for. That is seen in the way they handled negotiations in the WTO recently, they handled negotiations for the development banking BRICS and so on.


R.B.: Was that evident during Kerry's recent visit to...??

SR: To some extent, definitely, I mean, India did tell Kerry that they will not back off from their position in the WTO, for example. So there is an emphasis on an independent foreign policy and nationalist kind of approach, and this emphasis on the neighbourhood actually flows from the same approach. I won't say it is exclusive to Narendra Modi's government, there was a reshift in priorities in the later half of the UPA regime, but it is more so now. That's why we see more engagement with the neighbours and so on.


R.B: So you've mentioned that there's been this change in perception that we need to play a more positive role in our neighbouring countries but what does India actually gain through an enhanced relationship with Nepal, I mean, India has agreed to assist in developing various power projects and so on and so forth. But what benefit does India have, I mean, from ensuring that the constitution..

SR: India doesn't just have a special relationship with Nepal, in terms of state-state relationship but, it has a very special society-society relationship you know, Nepal is a Hindu majority country, India is a Hindu majority country, there are civilisational ties between the regimes in Nepal and various elites in India, apart from that there is a lot of cross border movement of people from Nepal to India and India to Nepal for religious purposes, cultural purposes and so on. There are many families in the plains in the Madhesh region in Nepal who share family relationship with people in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and so on. So it's not just a state-state relationship that governs Indo-Nepal relationship but it is also society-society relationship, number one.

Number two, India looks at Nepal through two lenses actually. One is a purely security lens, Nepal being a state in the Himalayas that abuts China not being very far away from Kashmir and so on and therefore, you know, having a friendly regime or rather having... Nepal plays an important role in India's security...perceptions and then another level you know, any instability in Nepal could spill over to India. Any hard, radical change in the polity in Nepal could affect India and vice-versa. So India is very bothered and concerned about these aspects. Apropos the Indian aid for hydel projects, this has been in emphasis for quite some time now. Being lower state India Nepal having abundance of hydro power resources, it makes sense for India to aid in the process to help Nepal develop its resources. Nepal is one of the least developed countries in the world, doesn't have know how, it doesn't have too much capital, nor does it have enough money to invest in these projects and therefore, India can play a role in this respect. It can also benefit India in terms of helping its all irrigation projects downstream. But India has to be careful, you know, there has always been a perception in Nepal that whatever hydel power treaty India has signed with Nepal, it has always benefited Indian interest more than the Nepali interest. And this has always stoked Nepali nationalism. So India has to play nuanced role. It has to in one sense help Nepal develop those resources but it also has to take concerns in terms of whether or not it will affect the perceptions of who benefits out of this treaty and so on.

Thirdly, India also aids in other development projects. Nepal is a net development recipient country, many countries are aiding Nepal's development process, NGOs as well, international NGOs as well. The difference between India and other countries is that India doesn't necessarily micro manage its projects there. It has an institutional relationship so it funds various departments Ministries in Nepal and it allows Nepali Ministries to take all those projects and do what it can..implement...and I think that emphasis should continue in the near future as well.


R.B: Now, there has been a talk of reviving 1950's treaty between India and Nepal known as the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, what does this treaty mean, why is it important?

SR: See, this Friendship Treaty was signed in 1950, when just before the time Nepal transited from Nepal from being a feudal Rana ruled what was called Rancracy into a constitutional monarchy, of course, the constitution was not written so it became an absolute monarchy, that's another matter. Between that regime in Nepal and the post-independence regime led by Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru in India. The treaty was... actually allowed for a very special relationship, it allowed for movement of citizens from one country to another without having to use visa, without any travel curbs and so on. And that actually has benefited millions of Nepalese to escape distress conditions in Nepal, sitting down in India, seek employment and so on. The controversial aspects of the treaty relate to the fact that the treaty suggests that Nepal, if it has to buy weapons supplies, I mean, if it has to have security arrangements, it has to always get it approved by India. The other arrangement is that Indian businessmen and Indian citizens should have preferential treatment in terms of contracts industrial development and so on. Now these two features of the treaty have always made the Nepali politicians uncomfortable. They felt, they've always said that their.sovereignty is being diminished because of these provisions. But having said that, de facto, if you look at it, these two provisions have not necessarily been implemented, I mean, basically it has been a dead letter, Nepal has bought weapons and other supplies from outside without having to get India's permission in that regard. And there have been curbs on Indian investment and so on. At the same time the treaty has, as it has been mentioned earlier, it has been extremely beneficial so the right thing to do would be to revise this treaty in the light of what has transpired over the last 60 years, since that treaty first came into force. And then retain some of the beneficial aspects of it.


R.B: Do you think India would be willing to give up those provisions though??


SR: There are some hard edged people who would want to retain those aspects, but they should be a little bit more mature that they'd have to look into the history of Indo-Nepal relations over time whether these provisions have really enforced and if they have not been then what is the point of retaining them? And I think closer relations between India and Nepal would be retained.. I mean if you cut down the factors that caused distress and if these two clauses cause distress then it makes sense not to retain them. And to an extent I think, when Narendra Modi made the statement that we're willing to revise the treaty in accordance with Nepal's wishes also, I think that was the emphasis also. It's good that the emphasis has finally become mainstream.


R.B: You've mentioned that India has had a sort of mixed relationship with Nepal in the past and we treat them in some ways as a bit like a vassal state, I mean we constantly accuse them of harbouring terrorism, being a root through which terrorism and illegal arms, drugs, so on come into India, but at the same time we failed to deliver on various projects we've tried to work with them on and so on and so forth. So there's a lot of mistrust I would say between the two establishments. Now, will this trip actually change the way the Nepal is viewed in India? Also the other way round, I mean, the way India has viewed Nepal, because there is Nepali politicians who've previously been fairly critical of India whether it's Prachanda or Baburam Bhattarai. They sounded fairly positive or upbeat about this trip.

SR: Well, if we can shift our gaze about Indo-Nepal relationship around a decade or so earlier, as I was telling you, there is a dual emphasis on Indian Foreign Policy towards Nepal, sometimes that dual emphasis is mutually reinforcing each other or sometimes it is mutually contradictory to each other. One emphasis is the security emphasis, wherein there is a strong motion of Nepal being a buffer state and that India should have a very strong relationship with his elite in the army, in the bureaucracy and so on and as to maintain the security relationship. Nepal supplies a regiment to India, the Gorkha Regiment actually play some part in India's army, so that is one role, that is one emphasis of Indian Foreign Policy Nepal to maintain status-quo in terms of security relations.

The other emphasis is more public minded emphasis which actually believes that, you know, there are a number of transitions that are going on in Nepal, as it's true of any country in the world, where some institutions simply anachronistic like, for example, in monarchy. It can't go on forever. And the impulses of the Nepali public should be taken on board. When you set policy, in the late 1990s and 2000 for example, when the Maoist started emerging as a major force in Nepal, the Indian establishment was frightened, they felt that this could create a security problem for India and therefore at that point of time the Indians were actually emphasising the security relationship more, they were supporting the Nepali monarch even to the extent of going on to supply weapons, logistic support and so on till the early 2000s and they felt that this was necessary in order to as a bull work against the rise of the Maoists. Now beyond a point what happened was the Nepali Monarch also got support from other countries like the U.S. and even China and this actually frightened the Indians to a certain extent because in order to retain the pre-eminent role vis a vis Nepal. During the same time Nepali Monarch also... it was a functioning parliamentary democracy revoked features of parliamentary democracy and declared an emergency and stride to shift polity back to an absolute monarchy. That's when the Indian establishment realised that this is not India's best interest, because it will further de-stabilise Nepal and the second emphasis which we were talking about, the public minded emphasis, just started coming to the fore which said that despite our security security relations, despite our close ties with elites and so on, we can't just hold off these impulses for change. And therefore India, therefore facilitator... this process of having a 7 party grouping the talks with the Maoists and then this whole process of transition from monarchy to democracy was established with Indian support and Indian facilitation. Now again that policy again changed after a while when Maoists came to power, again suspicion of the Maoism and so on before 2011 finally the Indians realised that this is not leading anywhere, the constitution process has to complete otherwise Nepal will remain destabilised and there was again mutually reinforcing consensus between the security establishment and the Ministry of External Affairs that let's take hands of approach, let's play facilitative role, we will help them in development and other trade and aid and so on. But we will take a hands of approach towards the political process. So now India has come slowly over a view that, you know,we have to have a nuanced relationship with Nepal. In the Nepal side, the politicians you've mentioned among the Maoist, they've had a very dogmatic view about India, they've felt that Indian was an expansionist state, there were other nationalists in Nepal who believed that India would do to Nepal what it did to Sikkim, that is annexe Sikkim. And therefore there was always this suspicion that every move that India was making was in line with what they had before independence and so on. Now they've come on to a view that no India-Nepal relation is bound to be forever, there are civilisational linkages, there are society-society relations and so on. And therefore, having a hard nationalistic line is not necessarily going to pay any dividends, and therefore they've also moved away from the staunch anti India position and there is a mutual getting together between these two radically opposite ideological elements. So now you see Narendra Modi regime that represents the Right in India and the radical Left in Nepal. Seeing some kind of commonality in terms of having Indo-Nepal relationship where India can play a facilitative role and Nepal not necessarily always considering India to be a big brother or a hegemony....


R.B.: So I presume that you agree with this change in focus that India has had focussing more on the developmental kind of agenda which is what Modi has been talking about here in India as well.

SR: Absolutely, I think it's good that the Narendra Modi regime has not shifted the emphasis that had started originating in 2011, when India sent a new ambassador ambassador Jayant Prasad to Nepal who emphasised this facilitating relationship and hands off approach. It is good that Narendra Modi believes that that is the way to go forward as well.


R.B: Now but what do you make of Modi's use of religion during the trip, I mean, he made a well televised trip to the Pashupatinath temple which was scheduled to coincide with an auspicious day and so on, he has offered funds to develop various religious centres such as Janakpur and Lumbini. So why do you think Mr. Modi is actually playing up to religious card in Nepal ?

SR: I would be surprised if he didn't do so, you know he's after all fountain-head of Hindutva politics in the country, he sees himself as a Hindu PM, his supporters call him Hindu Samraat and so on.. and therefore it just stands the reason that he goes to Nepal and visited those temples, any dignitary goes...that I had also been there to Nepal, taken my parents to Pashupatinath so, that is just bound to happen. The point is that if whether this would mean that Narendra Modi would support those regressive elements in the Hindu Right in Nepal who want Nepal to go back to monarchy, who want Nepal to go back to Panchayat Raj and so on, rather than continue the process of change in terms of Nepal being converted into a Republic and so on. Thankfully he unequivocally said that India stands for federal democratic republic in Nepal, he just put a full stop to all those theories that he's going to give support to all the shady elements in Nepali Right who actually belong to the regressive elements who belong to Nepal's past and not in Nepal's future. Having said that, this could be thus the overt emphasis, we don't know what kind of covert emphasis is there. Certainly Narendra Modi coming to power has embolden these sections and they have a conspiratorial bent of mind. We should know that people like the preists of the Gorakhnath temple, who is a major figure in the BJP, has been trying to bring back monarchy in Nepal and so on. So, there would be all kinds of low intensity movements taking place, we should be_orchestrated by these elements but I sincerely hope that the public statements made by Narendra Modi actually clear emphasis is that India is not in favour of in bringing back...


R.B: So by and large you think India is on the right track generally in terms of its relationship with Nepal....

SR: Yes, hopefully there is no covert engagement that is happening behind the back of what the Prime Minister was stating in Nepal's constituent assembly. That's the whole


R.B: All right so that's all the time we have today on Newsclick, do join us again for another episode soon.

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