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Kathmandu: The third term prime ministership of Narendra Modi in India has been interpreted in Nepal in various ways: Modi has returned to power much weaker than before and therefore he won’t be able to impose his Hindutva version of politics in Nepal, the election results have humbled Modi, it has opened new avenues for Nepal to redefine relations with India, so on and so forth. So, what does Modi’s return to power for the third consecutive term mean for Nepal? 

I approached Dr Minendra Rijal, former minister, scholar and leader of Nepali Congress who follows global geopolitics as well as Nepal’s relations with India, China and the US.  He says that the thinking that Modi 3.0 is weaker than he was before and Nepal does not need to worry much about Modi returning to power again is simply misplaced. “As far as India’s foreign policy is concerned and as far as its bilateral relation with Nepal is concerned, Modi’s party is no different from Rahul Gandhi’s party,” he said. “They basically say the same thing in their manifesto regarding India’s relations with Nepal.  They do not differ on bilateral relationship agendas.”

Regarding the argument that Modi wanted Nepal as a Hindu state, he says that this is a perception propagated by the Nepali political actors to please the BJP leader. “Has Modi asked us to become a Hindu state? Has he formally pronounced it? Nepali political leaders to please the Indian establishment are proposing things the Indian side might never have asked for.” According to him, most Nepali leaders at the highest echelon are creating this narrative and acting accordingly to curry favor and use New Delhi to promote their personal ambitions. “I have no knowledge of Modi trying to impose Hindutva and his will on Nepal.” 

According to him, there is no fundamental difference between the BJP and Indian National Congress vis-à-vis India’s relations with Nepal. “Both parties say the neighborhood is important.  Do they differ on issues related to boundary disputes with Nepal? Congress was in the government until ten years back, was it helpful in resolving the border issues with Nepal amicably?,” he said. “The outstanding issues such as the 1950 treaty, border issues and others have been there for decades and so.  We have faced the governments led by BJP and Congress both. What was the outcome? Have these issues been resolved? Has an Indian government been more facilitative than the other in terms of resolving these outstanding issues with Nepal?”

Rijal says that on one aspect there could be some change on part of Nepali leaders regarding their display of deference to Indian establishment. “Political party leaders here, to be in power, overzealously tried to please the Indian establishment in the past. With the outcome of the elections, political leaders in Nepal will probably be less overzealous in trying to please the Indian establishment. That will probably be one area where we will see change.”

Has Modi asked us to become a Hindu state? Has he formally pronounced it? Nepali political leaders, to please the Indian establishment, are proposing things the Indian side might never have asked for.

According to him, we cannot exactly say whether Modi is stronger or weaker in his third term. Modi can be stronger than what he is now or before or be weaker than what he is, he said. “He will be stronger if he can have other political parties to his side,” he explained. “Now he has only 240 seats, no other party has that strength, the second largest party has 99 and the INDIA alliance does not have 240, they have 232.” “So one possibility is that Modi becomes even stronger and if he becomes stronger, his style of leadership will probably be the same as it was in the past.  Then we will face the same New Delhi.  The other scenario is if the alliance changes or parties in the alliance switch sides. You cannot rule out the possibility of this because Nitish Kumar belongs to the social democratic party. Will he be comfortable with Modi ideologically? We don’t know. We can say the same thing about the Telugu Desam Party.”

Photo source: PTI

If the alliance partners of the BJP switch sides, then the Indian National Congress-led government will be much different from the BJP-led government. “Modi 3.0 can become Modi 2.0 if he becomes stronger, if he becomes weaker he might not even remain Modi 1.0, and then somebody else will form the government and Modi will be in opposition. This may not happen too soon but you cannot rule out that possibility for five years,” said Rijal.

“Think about a party in the coalition government today being offered prime ministership or some lucrative positions, they might switch sides to another alliance. Whatever is happening in Nepal may happen there too,” he spoke of another possibility.

According to him, none of these scenarios will significantly change Nepal-India relations because all political parties in India stand on the same page in India’s foreign policy. “Whether what we consider as significant issues for Nepal will be taken as significant issues in India will depend on whether Modi 3.0 evolves into Modi 2.0 or Modi 3.0 becomes unstable.  What might change is the way Nepali leaders show themselves to be overzealously pleasing Modi.”

Rijal says that Nepal’s geopolitics is not going to change. For Nepal, India and China are important neighbors, India being much more important. “That is not going to change. The relationship between India and China also is not going to take a drastic turn.  In this case, our ability to navigate geopolitics becomes more important than who is in the government in New Delhi and whether that government is stronger or weaker,” he said.  “Whoever is the Prime Minister of India will still be the prime minister of India.” 

He suggests that we should not be too judgmental about how Modi 3.0 is going to evolve and rush to conclude how that is going to impact us.  “We need to do what is important for us, do not think too much about Indian internal politics,” he said. “Neither we have the leverage to change the internal politics of India and be swayed from it nor can we do anything about it.”

He says that we need to think about Nepal, Nepal’s relations with India and the profound significance it has while also keeping in mind how significant our relation with China is.  Cultivating friendship across the political parties of India is important for Nepal now. “In the past when Modi 2.0 was very strong, we probably did not think much about the other political parties of India. We behaved as if no other parties apart from the BJP existed in India. Now in our calculus, other parties also feature prominently.”

In the days to come, it is going to be important for Nepali political parties to cultivate relations with other political parties such as the Indian National Congress. “Just like when Indian leaders come to Nepal they meet leaders from all leaders across the political spectrum, we need to do the same.” “In the last 10 years, our leaders basically were trying to please BJP leaders and the incumbent government. They paid no attention to other parties.  This was not the right approach.”

“Now we have to go back to those old days when we used to have conversation and engagement with all political parties in India,” he said. According to him, the election results in India offer an opportunity for Nepal to expand political relations not only with the BJP but also with other parties. “This provides us an opportunity to communicate our concerns regarding those outstanding issues across the spectrum and tell them. It will also help them to see issues from Nepal’s perspective and probably motivate them to see why it is important to find resolution to those issues.” 

Particularly for Nepali Congress, he thinks, it could be an opportunity to reboot relations with India. “Traditionally, my party Nepali Congress has a very good relationship with India. The first generation of Nepali Congress leaders fought for India’s independence.  Nehru and Gandhi were very positive about Nepal’s democracy movement,” he said. “We can use that leverage to reestablish our relations with the Indian National Congress as close as with the BJP.”

Related reports:

Modi 3.0: What will be the trajectory of Nepal-India relations?

South Asian leaders in swearing-in ceremony: India’s neighborhood first policy or a formality?