Narendra Modi’s thumping victory with 282 Lok Sabha constituencies, making him the Indian Prime Minister generated vibes throughout the region. His invitation to the heads of governments of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) member-states to his swearing-in ceremony was an unprecedented move – perhaps a signal that under his tenure as the prime minister, India will prioritise its neighbourhood. It would be interesting to observe what Modi’s victory means for the region in general, and for Nepal in particular.
Modi’s Neighbourhood Policy
The BJP, in their manifesto, assured that they would pursue friendly relations with all of India’s neighbours but would not hesitate from taking firm stances and strong steps. It was a clear signal to neighbours that they would not compromise on issues of terrorism and national security. Modi’s image as a decisive leader and his party’s ‘nationalist’ stand indicates that Modi would be different from the previous governments India has had. However, his efforts would be visible only if he comes with proper homework, revive the SAARC and facilitate the implementation of the SAFTA – the regional free trade agreement, during the SAARC summit to be held in Kathmandu in November this year. Since its establishment in 1985, the SAARC has made no progress due to the perpetual disagreements between India and Pakistan – despite the fact that the SAARC charter forbids member-countries from bringing bilateral issues to the table.
Many experts predict that Modi’s foreign policy priority would be South Asia (particularly improving relations with Pakistan) followed by China and the US, while others believe that China and South Asia would be lowest in his list of priorities as compared to the US, Japan and other strategic partners. After Modi’s rise, some media called him the “Shinzo Abe of India” while the westerners fear him as the “Indian Putin.” Many believe that he might emerge as the “Indian Deng Xiaoping.” Time will tell which name plate matches Modi best. However, Modi will have a proactive foreign policy, possibly one driven by economy.
Modi and Nepal-India Relations
Nepal-India relations have always been cordial, strong, and have stood the test of time. The two countries are so inextricably intertwined by means of geography, history, culture, religion and tradition that a change in government in either country would not affect the warmth of their bilateral relations. Many believe that there would be no fundamental shift in India’s policy towards Nepal under Modi’s regime, but it is likely that Nepal will get more attention, and that interaction between New Delhi and Kathmandu will increase. Interestingly, his first public statement on foreign affairs was about Nepal, on Twitter, where he said he was committed to strengthen relations.
Modi’s prime minister-ship has added anxiety among those Nepalese who stand for a secular and republic Nepal. They fear that Modi’s government, whose leaders had openly expressed unhappiness after Nepal was declared a secular and republic country, might encourage the hard-line Hindu party and pro-Hindu forces of Nepal to fight for the Hindu Kingdom. However, many neglect such fears as Modi is the Prime Minister of a democratic India whose own constitution calls it a “Secular Democratic Republic.” Thus, Modi’s government would not try to fiddle with these aspirations of Nepalese; and instead it would concentrate on building stronger economic ties. He would refrain from supporting hard-line forces in Nepal, irrespective of their ideological and religious persuasions.
‘Secular’ and ‘Republic’ were the two demands agreed by the political parties of Nepal to bring Maoists in the peace process, and those which were later reaffirmed by the People’s Movement of 2006. India facilitated the process as it was in its security interests. A small faction in Modi’s party still believes that a ‘Hindu Kingdom’ can be brought about but they fear the revival of another armed conflict by the Maoists. Hence, India would not make attempts at such adventurism as it would hurt its prime concern – security. Moreover, during the bilateral meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Nepal’s Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, the former assured the latter that New Delhi had no interest in interfering in the issue of secularism in Kathmandu; and that India would in fact help Nepal in its development.
Modi promised ‘development and governance’ to the people of India during his campaign, which verifies his focus on economic development. The Nepalese economy too can reap the benefits because it is closely linked with the Indian economy. For this, Nepalese political parties need to sort out their differences; write the constitution on time; take meaningful steps towards political stability; and refrain from over-politicising its policy towards India by developing a national consensus, so that internal power struggle does not affect Nepal’s foreign policy priorities.
Similarly, India must give greater political recognition and priority to its Nepal policy because of its unique relationship and security implications. The best way Modi could earn India some goodwill in Nepal is by letting the constitution-writing process take its own course and refrain from actively dictating terms, and/or micro-management, like the previous government did.