Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently concluded a visit to Nepal. During this trip, the Indian Prime Minister emphasised the religious and cultural bonds between the two countries.
Ties between India and Nepal have deteriorated since India’s 2015 blockade of Nepal.
Nepal is a land locked country with India on three sides and China on the northern border. Ties between India and Nepal date back to at least 300BC. There is archaeological evidence of Ashokan Buddhist relics in the region. India and Nepal share close linguistic, religious, historic, and cultural ties. Diplomatic ties were formalised when the two nations signed the 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship. The border between India and Nepal is an open boundary, and people of the two nations come and go freely.
Since signing the treaty, resentment towards India has grown in Nepal. Ties between the two nations have been further strained since 2015, and there have been reports of anti-Indian sentiment growing among the citizens as well as the government. These tensions came to a head in September 2015. India is believed to have supported minority groups such as the Medhesis, who were protesting the new Nepali constitution, which they claimed marginalised them. In September that year, the Nepali government accused India of imposing an undeclared blockade, preventing vital resources including fuel from entering the land-locked country. This caused an economic and a humanitarian crisis in Nepal. India denied that it had intentionally initiated the blockade.
Prime Minister K.P Oli’s visit to India earlier this year signified a thaw in ties. Oli, who won elections earlier this year by a large majority, is known for being pro-China. During the visit, the two heads of state confirmed the construction of a railway line between an Indian border town and Nepal, as well as deals on inland waterways and agriculture. Upon his return from India, Oli told Nepali media that his visit was “significant and fruitful”.
China has opened 32 border crossing points into Nepal since 2016. China has also made significant investments in improving infrastructure in Nepal. Beijing is Nepal’s second largest trading partner and accounted for a majority of Nepal’s FDI in 2017.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Nepali PM K.P Oli in Janakpur, a location that is significant to the Hindu epic Ramayana. The two leaders visited sites of religious significance and launched building work for a 900 MW hydroelectric project, Arun III. India agreed on new air routes and several connectivity projects including a direct bus service between Janakpur and Ayodhya.
“As Nepal enters a new era of consolidating the gains of a democracy and achieving economic growth, India remains a steadfast partner,” Modi said on Twitter before his visit. Modi said that his government has given top priority to relations with Nepal under India’s “Neighbourhood First” Policy. “India is ready to play the role of Sherpas, who help mountaineers scale Mount Everest, in Nepal’s journey to development and prosperity,” he stated.
In a later speech to Nepal’s Houses of Parliament, Prime Minister Oli said, “It has also been mentioned clearly in Modi’s statement that India respects the sovereignty and integrity of Nepal. Bilateral relations should be based on equality and support will be received as per Nepal’s priorities and needs.”
Analysts have observed that the visit could be intended to counter China’s increasing presence in Nepal. Modi’s presence in the Himalayan country may have been a soft power strategy to remind Nepal that "Chinese interest is purely commercial, but India is interested in exploring historical bonds between the two countries," according to JNU professor Swaran Singh. Some analysts noted that Modi’s emphasis on religious and historical bonds may signify a shift in India’s Nepal foreign policy.
There was a large group of Nepali citizens that protested the Indian Prime Minister’s visit. A day before Modi’s visit to Nepal, “#BlockadeWasCrimeMrModi” trended on twitter. “#Modinotwelcome” was another hashtag used to express dissent, and some civil society groups sought to organise a blackout in protest. "We suffered during the blockade. But I knew no one would talk about it during the visit. So I began the hashtag as a form of protest," said Bishodip Lamichhane, who launched the hashtag. "Majority of civilians opposed the blockade, but I realised that such a voice hadn’t found an outlet."
Critics have also said that the visit was “high on style and low on substance”. Some have observed that calls to a common religion in Nepal may bring back memories of the authoritarian Hindu monarchy that ended in 2008. Modi also did not address issues related to China such as OBOR or trilateral cooperation brought forward by the Chinese foreign minister earlier this year.
Our assessment is that this visit may be another attempt to “reset” India-Nepal ties. However, it is evident that there is still resentment towards India over the 2015 blockade. Nepali citizens may be wary of Indian attempts to brush the incident under the rug. As stated previously, we feel that if China succeeds in replacing India as Nepal’s key partner with regards to economy and security, it could create a fissure at the Himalayan border that separates mainland India from China. It is therefore essential for India to cultivate better relations with its smaller neighbour.