Wednesday, 15 October 2014 | Ashok K Mehta
Prime Minister Modi has given a massive push to India-Nepal relations with his successful visit to the neighbouring country. Now it is for the political leadership in Nepal to build on that momentum
One country in the neighbourhood where the Modi magic has worked dramatically is Nepal. With his marvel of oratory and a few symbolically-choreographed acts in Kathmandu, Prime Minister Narendra Modi conquered the hearts and minds of most Nepalis. This near-miracle was reflected late last month by a number of Nepalis I met in Nepalgunj, Dang-Ghorai and Kathmandu.
Nepalgunj was the venue of the Nepal-Bharat Awadh Maitri Samaj conference organised to highlight the problems confronted by residents living astride the India-Nepal open border, against the uptick in relations catalysed by Mr Modi. Reacting to Mr Modi’s Kathmandu visit, Ran Bahadur Shah (Goteh Babu), a veteran of the first revolution in 1950 who helped capture Dang, says, “Seventy five per cent of Nepal’s problems with India are over…the rest will settle…” Laxman Thapa a social activist from Ghorai, living in Kathmandu is completely bowled over Mr Modi. “After Nehru he is India’s tallest leader”. There is no one I met who was not a Modi fan. For someone visiting remote areas of Nepal since 1959, I found the Modi wave unprecedented. Does this mean the long-nurtured anti-India sentiment has evaporated? Not quite — that is why the 75 per cent quantification!
Indian Ambassador Ranjit Rae fanned a euphoria at the conference, calling the post-Modi era a period of transformation. He added, “What could not be done in 60 years has been achieved in four months”. He was referring to the Power Trade Agreement, the Power Development Agreement on Upper Karnali bagged by GMR following a global tender involving 11 companies, and the PDA for Pancheswor Dam signed during Mr Modi’s visit. These events and the upswing in India Nepal relations were endorsed by former Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, who shrewdly acknowledged the fruits of border connectivity: The help given by BJP MP from Balrampur, Ajay Misra, who was present at the conference, in facilitating his election victory.
Mr Rae echoed the point I have always made: That of Nepal’s strategic centrality to the security of the Indian sub-continent; hence its great importance for India. Nepalis have to be frequently reminded of their own country’s geo-strategic primacy due to geography, history, open borders and their sons sacrificing their blood for protection of India’s sovereignty. No other relationship is remotely comparable to what is called in the borderland as roti, beti and khoon ka rishta. Still, there was one sceptic, a seasoned Nepal-watcher at the conference who must go unnamed, who confided: “Six months and the Modi tamasha will be over”. But another expert noted that these dramatic mood-changes and quick gains must be preserved and the momentum of the new-found faith in India backed by commitments turning into reality.
Mr Jagdambika Pal, former Congress leader and now BJP Member of Parliament from Uttar Pradesh, eulogised the Modi mantra of “finding samadhan for every samasya”. Hridayesh Tripathi and Ishwar Dayal Sharma, both former Nepal Government Ministers and now with the Tarai-Madhesh Loktantrik Party, ably steered the conference that yielded many instructive lessons which BJP MPs from Uttar Pradesh and their counterparts from west Nepal promised to address. The young Sadhvi Savitri Phule, first-time BJP MP from Bahraich, said: “One hears about holes in roads; the Bahraich-Nepalgunj road is a big hole with a road in it”. She promised to set it right in quick time. Other issues discussed were perennials like border connectivity, police, customs, trans-border movement and trade, especially in herbal products, ban on Rs500 and Rs1,000 Indian currency notes, water and flood control measures and hydropower. Many innovative solutions were offered to more effectively regulate cross-border activities.
It is a shame that Nepal, which has the potential of 83,000 MW, of which at least half is commercial, suffers from 12 hours to 14 hours load shedding. It is only now that agreements with India as well as China have materialised. The anti-India Maoist faction — the so-called untransformed and undemocratised Baidya group, among which like every other party, fissures have appeared — was protesting with a bandh last September 23 across Nepal against the power-sharing agreements with India. “They don’t matter any more, having marginalised themselves”, observed Vikas Agarwal, a Nepali businessman and politician from Ghorai. This leads to the larger question: What next in Nepal?
Sadly, the biggest deficit in this high season of post Dashain-Tihar festivities is leadership. After a 10-year drought in New Delhi, Mr Modi was discovered. In Kathmandu, just when you needed someone like GP Koirala, you get a well-meaning, scrupulously honest but a weak Koirala cousin, Prime Minister Sushil Koirala. The second attempt at writing the Constitution is going nowhere. Former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, who was billed as a star speaker at the Nepalgunj conference but didn’t turn up, heads the Political Dialogue and Consensus Committee. He announced recently that a Constitution by the promised deadline of January 22, 2015, is not possible — though the Government insists it will be delivered. A Constitution means fresh elections and none of the legislators wants one!
Political stability flowing from a new Constitution over which the country has fought a decade-long civil war, appears a bridge too far. A Modi intervention, strictly by invitation, may be one way out of the current impasse. Many Nepalis have suggested that India broker another landmark peace agreement to help overcome the tricky issues like federalism, form of government, judicial system and election system. New Delhi’s peace agenda has been one of mainstreaming the Maoists and the democratisation of Nepal. In Dang district, Maoists had won all five electoral seats in the 2008 election. In 2013, they lost all to the Nepali Congress. In these areas, and I am told elsewhere too, the byword for corruption regrettably is the transformed Maoists. I asked Mr Naresh Thapa, a political commentator from Ghorai what to make of this. His reply: “Janata le bujhiyo” (people have understood the Maoists). What he did not say was that the transformation of romantic revolutionaries to reasonably honest politicians will take time. While the Constitution will get written and border region problems get resolved the hope of people-first politics is fading away.
All the promises made by Mr Modi in Kathmandu are being delivered. Nepal’s political ruling class keeps signing five and six- point agreements at the drop of a hat without delivering any economic dividend to the people. That is the tragedy of Nepal.