Last Friday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi started his two-day visit to Nepal from Janakpur, the heartland of Madhes or the southern plains whose residents are ethnically and socially close to Indians across the border. This Himalayan nation had not witnessed a visit by an Indian prime minister in close to two decades before Modi dropped in three times in the past four years, twice on a state visit and once as an attendee to the 18th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation conference in Kathmandu. Before Modi, the last Indian prime minister to make a bilateral visit to Nepal was Inder Kumar Gujral in June 1997.

Modi’s feelers to Nepal this year started with two telephonic conversations with Nepalese Prime Minister KP Oli, and Union External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Nepal in February. Oli’s three-day visit to India followed in April.

Modi’s desire to start his visit from Janakpur in the Madhesi-majority Terai region had two motivating elements to it. First, the government in Kathmandu had cancelled his visit to Janakpur and the Muktinath temple in northern Nepal during his second visit in 2014. Second, Janakpur is both the putative birthplace of Sita and, as the temporary capital of Province 2, important to the Madhesi plainspeople’s longstanding demand for proportional representation in the Nepalese parliament through a constitutional amendment, which New Delhi has pushed for through diplomatic pressure and direct economic interference. (India had actively backed the 135-day blockade that had frozen essential cross-border trade from September 2015 to February 2016 a week after the constitution was promulgated.)

This time round, Kathmandu allowed Modi to not only visit both venues but also to use them to attempt to endear himself to this Hindu-majority country riven by anti-India – and specifically anti-Modi – protests.

Madhes wary of Modi

Nepal’s wariness about Modi is rooted in what almost all the hillspeople and some plainspeople see as his stereotyping of the Nepalese as subcontinental subordinates – Gurkhas, Sherpas and migrant workers to India – and of the country as a political satellite and a religious cash cow.

Given this backdrop, analysts both in Kathmandu and New Delhi say that there might be several reasons behind Modi’s desire to kickstart his visit from the capital of Province 2.

Province 2 is areawise the smallest, second-most populous and most densely-populated province in Nepal. It also has the country’s most thriving business community. But among this pro-India section that comprises more than a fifth of Nepal’s population, there exists a deep disappointment with Modi. The Madhesis see him as having not pushed hard enough for a constitutional amendment that would topographically and politically empower them. While the two Madhes-based parties in Nepal’s parliament, the Rashtriya Janata Party Nepal and Federal Socialist Forum Nepal, supported Oli’s government during the vote of confidence in March, Modi’s charisma has not rubbed off on them much as it seems to have on Oli.

Modi’s visit to Janakpur was intended to send the message to Madhesis that India stood with their demand for the constitutional amendment.

But, in a sense, Nepal is aware that Modi’s idée fixe is India, not the region. The Nepalese know that the “Ramayana Circuit” – on which will run the Janakpur-to-Ayodhya bus service that Modi inaugurated on this trip – is aimed not so much at Nepal as at his pan-India constituency. The Indian government is developing 15 destinations in India under the Ramayana Circuit: Ayodhya, Nandigram, Shringverpur and Chitrakoot in Uttar Pradesh; Chitrakoot in Madhya Pradesh; Sitamarhi, Buxar and Darbhanga in Bihar; Mahendragiri in Odisha; Jagdalpur in Chhattisgarh; Nashik and Nagpur in Maharashtra; Bhadrachalam in Telangana; Hampi in Karnataka; and Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu.

All about the optics

Modi had very little to offer to Nepal in concrete terms on this visit since Oli had already wrapped up the crucial bilateral projects during his three-day visit to New Delhi. In that sense, Modi’s visit was an also-ran to Oli’s, during whose visit India announced the construction of an India-funded railway line connecting Raxaul in Bihar with Kathmandu, the laying of the Motihari-Amlekhgunj cross-border petroleum products pipeline, and the inauguration of the Integrated Check Post at Birgunj in Nepal.

The two countries also confirmed the kickstarting of the long-evasive Arun-III hydropower project located near Num, a remote village in the Sankhuwasabha district in northeastern Nepal. Arun-III is the largest hydropower project to be developed in Nepal. The mere fact that it is primarily being funded through Indian foreign direct investment has raised tempers in Nepal. In February, it led cadres of the Communist Party of Nepal, a splinter Maoist group, to set off crude bombs at the Arun-III site.

Meanwhile, the total cost of the project has escalated from ₹5,700 crore in February 2017 to an estimated ₹7,000 crore as of April this year. India’s announced contribution is $1.5 billion, or more than ₹10,000 crore, which exceeds the estimated project cost by 30%. This anomaly has not been explained by either India or Nepal.

Nepalese Prime Minister KP Oli with Narendra Modi in New Delhi in April. (Credit: PIB India / Twitter)

‘Neighbourhood First’

Both Oli and Modi referred to the latter’s visit as historic – in contrast to the mutual edginess evident during Oli’s visit to India in February 2016, when the two prime ministers failed to release the customary joint statement – but whether it will have much impact on bilateral relations is uncertain.

While Modi advised the Madhesis to unite and consolidate power, and assured them of Indian support for an amendment to the Nepalese constitution, he refrained from commenting on matters related to Madhes, especially the demand that Sunsari, Morang and Jhapa be joined with Province 2 and Kailali and Kanchanpur with Province 5.

At a time when India is in danger of losing its grip on friends such as Bhutan and the Maldives, Modi needs to do a lot more than make a votive visit to Nepal to prove that his “Neighbourhood First” policy is not meant to, above all, promote India’s regional hegemony.

Dr Pramod Jaiswal is Senior Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi, and hails from Nepal.