When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Nepal next week for the third time since becoming PM, he will not only aim to reset bilateral ties but also send signals to the Madhes, his own electorate back home, and to China.
Modi will fly to Janakpur from Patna probably in an Indian Air Force helicopter on 11 May. He had wanted to enter Nepal overland, but security agencies in both countries are still assessing whether that would be a safe option.
Modi will perform a puja at Janaki Temple before receiving a civic felicitation at Ranga Bhumi ground. Prime Minister KP Oli will also fly down to Janakpur to welcome Modi.
In Janakpur, there is a sense of déjà vu as preparations get underway for the visit. During the November 2014 SAARC Summit in Kathmandu, Modi wanted to visit Janakpur and Muktinath. The city had been spruced up with welcome gates along the main roads (see photo, inset) when the Janakpur part of the trip was cancelled.
The Sushil Koirala government did not allow Modi to cross into Nepal overland and address a mass rally in Janakpur. When Nepal insisted that Modi just worship at Janaki Temple, and not address a mass meeting, he cancelled his trip.
Many believe that Nepal-India relations began to sour after that because Modi took the cancellation as a personal affront. Janakpur-based analyst Bhogendra Jha says, “If Modi was allowed to visit Janakpur in 2014, Nepal-India ties would not have sunk so low.”
Between that aborted trip and the one next week, Nepal-India ties have gone through a roller-coaster. Modi tried to arm-twist Nepali leaders into delaying the Constitution, and when that failed he imposed a Blockade on Nepal. Anti-India sentiments ran high in Nepal, undoing gains of Modi’s successful first tip to Nepal in 2014. KP Oli, in turn, used anti-India nationalism to propel himself to power in last year’s elections.
“It all began from Janakpur, but it could also end in Janakapur,” Jha adds. “Modi’s connection to Janakpur marks the end of an unwarranted chapter in Nepal-India relations.”
However, many Nepalis on social media are still calling for Modi to apologise for the Blockade on an earthquake-devastated country in 2015. They also oppose the idea of a civic reception for a leader responsible for wrecking Nepal’s economy.
But there is a different tone in Janakpur. Many there say the Blockade is a thing of the past and it is time to forget, forgive and move on. Janakpur’s mayor Lal Kishore Sah says: “If you keep raking up the past, you can never prepare for the future.”
But many say Modi is not the kind who forgets and forgives. The importance that he has attached to Janakpur during his two-day visit shows that he wants to show Nepal’s Madhesi people he has not abandoned them. He may announce aid for a ‘Ramayana Circuit’ that will also help him with Hindu voters in Indian elections next year.
NC leader Abhishek Pratap Shah says: “From Janakpur Modi wants to give a message to the Madhesi people that he could not fully champion their cause in the past but will do so in the future.”
Modi is also trying to use his Nepal visit as an opportunity to send a strong message to Beijing by flying to worship at Muktinath close to the Chinese border.
The Oli government is still pro-Chinese and believes Beijing has increased its influence in Nepal,” Shah adds. “From Muktinath, Modi will be signalling China that India is still a dominant player in Nepal.”