If Modi does visit Nepal, ahead of his first speech from the Red Fort and prior to visiting any country outside South Asia, it will mark a positive change in Indian foreign policy.
But sitting in Kathmandu, I feel optimistic about the prospects for regional integration in South Asia. My optimism arises because of the news of Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s imminent visit to Dhaka to be followed by her visit to Kathmandu reportedly in preparation for Prime Minister Modi’s tentatively planned visit to Nepal in the beginning of August.
This is just amazing news, coming as it does on the heels of his invitation to South Asian heads of government for his swearing in and making Bhutan his first foreign visit. If Modi does visit Nepal, ahead of his first speech from the Red Fort and prior to visiting any country outside South Asia, it will mark a positive change in Indian foreign policy.
For me, who has been propagating the cause of and working on regional cooperation in South Asia since the mid-eighties (nearly 30 years), this is almost too good to be true. My hope is that this change in the focus and orientation of our foreign policy will soon be reflected down the line in the MEA. Henceforth, South Block and India will wholeheartedly accept the asymmetric responsibility for making South Asia an integrated economic space with open borders that permit free, but legally permitted movement of people, goods and services.
Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, was himself a strong proponent of open borders in South Asia. But quite inexplicably he did not find the time to visit Nepal! Consequently, Indo-Nepal relations suffered inordinately. Many friends of India have been angry at Nepal being left to be handled by the ‘Agencies’ with political contacts being allowed to wither away. This could be the critical difference between Singh and Modi. The latter has quite visibly put politics in command. For a Prime Minister to have met all his counterparts in the region and visited two neighbouring capitals within the first 100 days of becoming Prime Minister is history making action.
It clearly distinguishes Modi from all his predecessors. It also sends a clear signal that henceforth India will give the highest priority to its neighbourhood, and not look for kudos from global powers or seek to punch above its weight on the global scene. Realism and the pursuit of national interest, the two drivers of India’s foreign policy, requires that South Asia has now become India’s central focus.
Coming back to Nepal, it may be important for the two governments to try and sort out some of the outstanding issues in Indo-Nepal relations prior to Modi’s visit that is also aimed at paying homage to Lord Pashupatinath, the protector of Kathmandu. There is a good chance for an agreement being finalised between GMR and the Government of Nepal to start work on the 600 MW hydro power project. The PMO could encourage GMR to take a quick decision on this and push the project forward. This will mark a major breakthrough and could be the beginning of Nepal’s journey to prosperity and South Asia’s progress to energy security.
India also needs to address the concerns of a vocal minority in Nepal which is opposed to export of hydropower to India if the commercial exploitation of nearly 80,000 MW of Nepal’s hydropower potential could become a reality. Modi would do well to push the envelope forward, by declaring, while in Kathmandu, India’s support for a South Asian region electricity grid and announcing India’s willingness to allow unimpeded flow of Nepalese hydropower energy across Indian territory to other countries in South Asia. This will be a big win and has the potential to change the development trajectory in the entire region.
At the same time, some minor irritants have to be removed to make this visit truly historical. Indian border officials do not endear themselves to the vast number of Nepalese who cross the open border and go back home from their jobs in India. The petty and ham-handed corruption and harassment meted out by personnel of the Seema Suraksha Bal, other para-military forces and the Customs department to Nepalese youth changes potential goodwill towards India into deep seated anger among them.
This results in the creation of long term negative sentiment that is difficult to counter despite the presence of a large number of Nepalese who have been educated in Indian universities and carry very fond memories for their time spent in India. This pernicious practice can surely be changed almost overnight with strict directions going out from the home ministry and the CBEC. The PMO may want to ensure that such directions are issued prior to Modi’s visit.