Modi opts for religious diplomacy to put Nepal ties on track
Prime Minister Modi will visit Janakpur, where Lord Ram was supposed to have wed Sita, is expected to announce a bus service from Janakpur to Ayodhya, the birthplace of Ram.Updated: May 11, 2018 08:49 IST
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will kick off his Nepal visit from Janakpur, an important religious centre in the Terai plains where Lord Ram was supposed to have wed Sita according to the Ramayana.
This will be a part of his effort to get India’s ties with Nepal on track after a difficult phase in the relationship when differences over the Nepal constitution led to deep trust deficit and public acrimony between Kathmandu and Delhi. The prime minister’s decision, though, has stirred up a debate on the use of religion in diplomacy.
Modi has already visited Nepal twice. In the run up to his second visit, in November 2014, Janakpur was on the itinerary, but the then Nepal government was not too keen on this. It was a time of constitution writing. Janakpur is the key centre of the Madhesis, people of the plains who were assertive in seeking a federal structure and inclusion. Kathmandu’s hill-dominated political establishment felt Modi’s visit would embolden the Madhesis. It would also, a section of the Nepali leadership argued, encourage those who wanted the country to become a Hindu state rather than have a secular constitution. They read in the desire to visit Janakpur, an intent to push this agenda. Given the cold reception, India decided to cancel the Janakpur leg of the visit.
A lot has happened since then. Nepal drafted a secular constitution; the clauses on federalism alienated Madhesis who waged a five month long movement with Indian support. Eventually, the broad constitutional compact was accepted; Madhesis participated in the constitution; an ultra-nationalist leader PM K P Oli won the election; and but India and he began a process of rapprochement. He visited India and to deepen ties, Modi decided to visit Nepal for the third time in his tenure. Janakpur was back on the itinerary.
Janakpur is the capital of Nepal’s Province 2, which is the country’s only Madhesi dominated unit and also the only one of the seven provinces not ruled by the Oli-led communist alliance. It is governed by Madhesi parties and the Chief Minister is a Muslim Madhesi leader, Mohammed Lalbabu Raut.
Modi will be welcomed by Oli; he will visit the Janaki temple; and he will attend a civic reception and give a public speech, where he is expected to announce a bus service from Janakpur to Ayodhya, the birthplace of Ram, which has considerable political significance for the BJP. In Nepal, the speech will be carefully watched for the messaging around Madhesi issues and how he recognises their aspirations while taking into account sensitivities of the host government in Kathmandu. In India, the visit is being watched closely for his visit to the temple town will happen a day before Karnataka goes to polls, and in the run-up to a possible court verdict in the Ram Janmabhoomi case and the 2019 polls.
The visit has stirred up a debate.
On the one hand are critics who believe that Modi is using religion for diplomacy, which does not behove a secular state like India. India must not get into this trap; given its multi religious framework, the leadership must stay away from religious symbols and association, goes this argument. It is also argued that a foreign visit is being used to push a domestic political agenda. They also read in it an effort by the ruling government to continue to push the agenda of a Hindu state in Nepal.
On the other hand are those who argue that religion is a perfectly legitimate tool of soft power diplomacy. In the neighbourhood, India’s strength is its cultural links, goes this argument, and these must be leveraged. The fact that hundreds of thousands of Nepalis come to India for pilgrimage and vice versa should be acknowledged, rather than skirted. Proponents of this theory point out that the Janakpur visit must be seen as a larger part of Indian cultural diplomacy, which is neither Nepal-specific nor Hindu-specific. Modi visited Pashupatinath in Kathmandu; the Toji temple in Japan; the Gangaramaya Temple in Sri Lanka; and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in United Arab Emirates among other sites. He has also consciously highlighted India’s Buddhist heritage. This suggests India’s religious-cultural diplomacy is here to stay.