As a piece of public diplomacy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Nepal could not have gone better. Nepal lavished attention on Mr Modi, with Prime Minister Sushil Koirala breaking protocol and receiving him at the airport, eager crowds lining the streets and the political class warming to him. On his part, Mr Modi did just about everything to reassure Nepal about India’s intention and his own resolve to push relations in a new direction. India-Nepal ties have long had an ambivalent character — Nepal relies heavily on India as a landlocked State but has come to resent New Delhi’s influence in its internal affairs while the new republic intensely debates its political future. Suspicion has, time and again, choked bilateral potential.
Mr Modi has done well to calibrate his messaging in a way that satisfies Nepal’s public and key elite constituents. Among statements that were received well, Mr Modi conceded India needed Nepal, saying the latter was in a position to “free India of its darkness with its electricity”. He underlined that he had no interest in interfering with Nepal’s future and said he would stand by whichever decision Nepal took — be it on the terms of the hydropower trade or the specifics of the Friendship Treaty between the countries. He welcomed the Nepal Maoists’ entry into parliamentary politics and signalled that they would no longer be beyond the pale of Indian engagement. Mr Modi satisfied traditionalists by bearing gifts for the Pashupatinath Temple but refrained from encouraging royalists by backing Nepal’s quest to be a ‘federal democratic republic’. He nudged Madhesi politicians — who are close to India — to work for a unified Nepal and did not pander to their complaints about hill region elites.
Some deliverables matched the rhetoric. India announced a $1-billion line of credit for Nepal’s infrastructure development. Key power agreements will soon follow. India will build highways, railway lines, pipelines and bridges to consolidate connections between both sides. Nepal is for now suitably impressed. Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai called Mr Modi’s Constituent Assembly address “magical” while Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ said the PM won Nepalis’ hearts. So far so good. A lot now depends on how ministries and officials deliver on the agreed agenda. There is a great degree of bureaucratic fine print to be negotiated concerning the Friendship Treaty, power deals, border protocols and other issues. The PM’s sensitive messaging on Nepal, including his comments on non-interference, must cascade through the Indian establishment and be reflected in the changed tenor of India-Nepal exchanges hereon.