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The Indian prime minister’s visit to Nepal sparks hope, dismay and speculation

Indian security personnel in Janakpur on Thursday in preparation for Prime Minister Modi's visit to Janaki Temple. Pic: Ishwar Chandra Jha

The Indian prime minister’s visit to Nepal sparks hope, dismay and speculation

As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi transits Kathmandu between two political pilgrimages to Janakpur and Muktinath this weekend, there is hope, dismay and even confusion in Nepal.

In Janakpur, where Modi will worship at Sita’s birthplace and be felicitated, there is unprecedented excitement. Not since Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurated the Kosi Barrage in 1961 has an Indian leader visited Nepal’s Tarai. The citizens of Province 2 hope that Modi’s decision to take a direct flight from New Delhi to Janakpur on Friday will be a big boost to the Madhesi demand for amendments to the Constitution.

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In Kathmandu, where Modi will spend two nights and meet political figures, many are dismayed that their mayor is felicitating an Indian leader who blockaded Nepal for five months in 2015. Angry posts on Nepali social networks have demanded that Modi apologise for what they call a ‘crime against humanity’. 

People are widely circulating an appeal on Twitter and Facebook to observe a 10-minute blackout in Kathmandu on Friday evening, as a symbolic protest to remind citizens of the dark days of the Blockade two years ago.  

And, there is confusion about whether the Modi visit reflects a course correction in India’s policy towards Nepal. Some think New Delhi realised it went too far, pushed Nepal closer to China, and it is now trying to reset bilateral ties.

Read also: Campaigning in Nepal, Editorial 

But others argue that Modi either doesn’t know about the level of anger in Nepal, or doesn’t care. He is more interested in using his pilgrimage to Hindu shrines in Nepal just ahead of Karnataka elections as a photo opportunity during the silent period before voting on Sunday in the staunchly-Hindu south Indian state.

MP Radheshyam Adhikari believes  Modi’s visit indicates New Delhi’s realisation that the Blockade was a blunder. But analyst Shreekrishna Aniruddh Gautam thinks otherwise, and that  a Modi apology is highly unlikely.

Gautam says: “Modi’s visit is less about resetting diplomatic ties with Nepal and more about his own domestic electorate politics, and geopolitics.”

MP Anil Jha of the Madhes-based RJP-N asks sardonically: “There was no course in Indian policy towards Nepal, so how can there be a correction? Still, the visit has symbolic significance.”

Indian air force helicopter in Jomsom rehearses Indian Prime Minister Modi's visit to the Muktinath Shrine. Pic: RSS

Whether offering prayers at Janaki Temple in Janakpur, worshipping at Muktinath shrine near the China border or visiting Pashupatinath in Kathmandu,  whatever Modi does here is aimed directly at the home audience.  

Modi will also be trying to allay criticism  at home that his policy has pushed Nepal into China’s embrace. Last year, Modi was able to resolve the Doklam standoff diplomatically, but China is said to be still camped in what India claims to be Bhutanese territory.

Rahul Gandhi of the opposition Congress in India is using Doklam as an example of Modi’s diplomatic failures. Some say Modi’s recent visit to China was mainly to ensure that there is no new border flare-up in the Himalaya before Indian general elections next year.

Bhaskar Koirala of the Nepal Institute of International and Strategic Studies thinks that Nepal is no longer an effective buffer between India and China because of better connectivity and trade.

“India would naturally be concerned about the extent to which Nepal begins to tilt towards China,” Koirala says.

In Kathmandu, Modi will likely try to make a repeat performance of 2014 when he turned around Nepal’s public opinion with a rousing speech in Nepali to Parliament. He will try to turn on the charm offensive once again.

Modi will flag off the Janakpur-Ayodhya bus service, unveil a plan to connect the birthplace of Sita with the Ramayana Circuit. He is also likely to announce a special package for Janakpur’s development.

In Kathmandu, Modi and PM KP Oli will remotely lay the foundation stone of Arun III. The two leaders are also expected to sign agreements on railway, agriculture and inland waterway projects.

But these will not be enough to heal the bitter memoriers of the Indian Blockade on the Nepali psyche. Nepal’s former ambassador to India Bhekh Bahadur Thapa who is a member of the India-Nepal Eminent Persons Group says: “The only way Modi can begin to win back the confidence of Nepalis is to deliver on his past promises.”

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