Modi among the pigeons

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By Yubaraj Ghimire

YubarajThe 18th Saarc summit came and went, with a call for deeper integration of South Asia for peace and prosperity. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s message that scepticism and cynicism should be transformed into hope explains the regional body’s poor implementation record for the last three decades.

Modi’s handshake with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the conclusion of the summit in Kathmandu got a roaring applause from the audience and those on the dais. However, Modi’s Nepal trip — his second since August — is being analysed in Kathmandu more in the bilateral context. The transformation of the prevailing cynicism in Saarc to hope may still be far away.

Within hours of his arrival, Modi inaugurated the National Trauma Centre, the foundation of which was laid by former Indian PM I.K. Gujaral 17 years ago. India is often criticised for the poor pace of implementation of its projects in Nepal. For Modi, it was a good occasion to claim he was different from his predecessors. Besides the trauma centre, two new power projects — Arun 3 (900 MW) and Upper Karnali — were signed, along with the formation of the long-pending Pancheshwar Development Authority, as well as the formalisation of the power development agreement between the two sides. These came as a testimony to Modi’s claim.

Nepal has large hydro potential and Modi has offered India’s market to Nepal under easy conditions. But Nepal at the moment faces political uncertainty, with its leaders unlikely to deliver the constitution and end the prolonged political transition.

Delivering a constitution by the January 22 deadline that would be acceptable to all sides, and far more difficult, a constitution by consensus, were Modi’s suggestions. These didn’t go down well with the ruling coalition in Nepal since it is toeing the two-thirds majority line. On the other hand, a coalition of 22 opposition parties, led by the Maoists, has threatened to stall the constitution-making process if a majority line is imposed. “A constitution by majority may create problems. Let the Madhesis and the Pahadis, as well as the Maoists, feel this is their constitution as well,” said Modi.

Modi spent less than a third of his time on Saarc-related events. He spent most of it with local politicians, discussing the peace and constitution-making processes and their likely impact on Nepal’s developmental potential, as well as what uncertainties in Nepal mean for India. In his meetings with Madhesi leaders, he asked them to adopt a more cooperative attitude: “Please make attempts to know your country, which comprises of hills, mountains and the plains.”

But what has been debated most in Nepal is Modi’s emphasis on consensus for adopting a constitution. “How could consensus be possible? We have a party that does not accept federalism and another in favour of restoring the monarchy and Nepal’s Hindu status,” Jhala Nath Khanal, former PM and leader of the CPN-UML, a votary of the “settlement by majority” line, told Modi. Modi conveyed the message to everybody he met that not having the constitution within the deadline may invite serious consequences.

And Nepal is evidently headed for those consequences. However, why did Modi choose to speak so categorically on Nepal’s politics, when in August his message was that he was more interested in Nepal’s economic development? The speculation in Nepal is that he has started depending more on the bureaucracy. But Modi’s concerns converge with those of the Nepali people. He did not apparently want to be misunderstood, as he and his aides kept telling Nepal’s leaders it was their responsibility to frame the constitution and India was simply expressing its hope and wishing them luck.

India’s discomfiture with active lobbying from Pakistan and some others for China’s membership in Saarc was visible. But Nepal’s likely failure on constitution-delivery and the resultant instability may bring India and China together on a limited scale. India, nevertheless, will share the blame as it was the UPA government that mediated among Nepal’s parties, who did not honour their promise. Modi has reminded the parties of that promise. But it seems too late and too tall a hope at this point.

Courtesy: Indian Express