India and the Charm Offensive in Nepal: Modi’s Magic

27 Aug, 2014    ·   4626

Subin Nepal weighs in on the success of Narendra Modi’s visit to Nepal

To give a boost to improving India’s relations with its neighbours, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Nepal for his second official state visit. Making it the first official visit from an Indian Prime Minister in 17 years, Modi was very clear in expressing his intentions of increased regional cooperation. While in Nepal, Modi seems to have utilised every chance to express his willingness to work with the country’s government on several intricate issues.

Modi’s speech at the Nepali parliament received particularly positive feedback as the first part, on his close relations with the country, was delivered in Nepali. During the two-day visit, Modi seems to have created an overall positive image of Indian leadership among the general population as well as the political leadership. Exploring the details of how exactly Modi was able to achieve this overwhelmingly positive feedback could reveal more about Modi’s ‘magic’.

Modi seems to have used several populist tactics during his visit to Nepal. The first one came when he stopped the car carrying him from the airport to his hotel and shook hands with people on the street - this was a major security breach, though some experts claim it may have been staged. Regardless, Modi quickly established himself as someone with the willingness to risk his security to meet people on the ground - a personal touch to his diplomatic mission.

The other major and possibly the most favoured act came when Modi spoke in Nepali. While addressing the parliament of Nepal, Modi started his speech in Nepali and went on for about two minutes before switching to Hindi. This is a rare occurrence as Indian politicians resort to Hindi for speeches - which is criticised as an ‘Indian imperialist’ action of assuming that all Nepalis are able to speak Hindi. This time was no different - Modi eventually resorted to Hindi for the rest of the speech. However, the first two minutes of broken Nepali was enough to convince Nepalis that he came with an agenda of friendship and was making a genuine an effort by going as far as learning the language of the people he was addressing.  

Modi avoided political disaster and received even more favourable reviews from the general public and the opposing factions in the parliament - mainly the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPNM) - once he rejected any possibility of meeting the ousted King Gyanendra Shah. To those worried about the BJP’s support to the Nepali monarchy, this was a clear message in the other direction. Modi was successful in keeping BJP’s Hindu right philosophies out of that particular conversation, which hinted at non-interference.

During a meeting with the Madhesi leaders, Modi was clear about his disinterest in ethnicity-based federalism in Nepal. This may have put him in some disagreement with the Madhesi leaders and the UCPN-M, but he was certainly able to tap into the popular view of geography-based federalism. Modi’s overall language made it clear that he aligned himself with the majority on this particular issue and his clear message did not leave any room for doubt. Even more surprising was how the UCPN-M, the staunchest critic of the Indian establishment, quickly found itself praising Modi’s proposals.

The Indo-Nepal Peace and Friendship Treaty 1950 was at the forefront of the UCPN-M’s criticism of the Indian establishment before Modi’s visit. However, Modi surprised the UCPN-M when he showed his willingness to renegotiate the treaty. UCPN-M’s previous prime ministers have shown little-to-no ability to renegotiate the terms of the treaty - instead using it as a measure to create anti-India sentiment. Modi’s call to renegotiate the treaty was able to debunk the propaganda machine of the UCPN-M while amassing public support for India.

Finally, Modi offered his prayers at Pashupatinath temple - the most important shrine for Nepali Hindus. This was followed by the announcement of a large donation to the temple by the Indian government. Nepal is a Hindu-majority country, and this action was naturally well-received.

While Modi was obviously able to gather very warm feedback from the Nepali population, the demographic he reached out to reveals a certain pattern. Modi seems to have focused mostly on the majority - while almost completely ignoring the minority factions in the country regardless of their political and religious affiliations.

Modi’s largest plan while in Nepal was to convince Nepal’s leadership and public about the Power Trade Accord (PTA) - which he clearly seems to have been successful at. He said exactly what Nepalis wanted to hear - whether it was praising the bravery of the Gurkhas or relating to Nepal at a personal level. However, somewhere in his political orchestration, the larger discussion of the PTA seems to have been lost from the minds of the general public and even the leaders. All things said, it is of course too early to make definitive pronouncements on the success of the visit without any substantial results.