Rekindling ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy

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“Everything popular is wrong.”

– Oscar Wilde


After his visit to Wuhan in China, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s last week’s Nepal visit, third visit to the Himalayan nation in four years, manifests New Delhi’s efforts to bring the derailed ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, launched in 2014, back on track. Saying that Nepal is at the top of India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, Modi  during his visit announced a Rs 100 crore package to develop Janakpur, while invoking mythological links between the two countries. Modi’s visit also showed his government’s deep commitment to further strengthen ties with the neighbouring country. In their talks, they discussed the initiatives between the two countries in agriculture, inland waterways and railways. These will enhance the mutual connectivity between the people and trade of the two countries. In inland waterways, the cooperation between the two neighbours is very important. Modi himself in a statement said that these high-level and regular interactions reflect his government’s commitment to the ‘neighbourhood first’ policy, in consonance with the motto of ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’. The Prime Minister is now clear about two perceptions: (a) A failed neighbourhood policy would be a huge electoral liability in 2019 and (b) If New Delhi does not resolve its differences with its small neighbours, it will only pave the way for China to enjoy a growing influence in the region.

There is no denying that the Indian Prime Minister visited Nepal on a mission to bridge the trust deficit between the two countries. India objected to Nepal’s constitution of 2015, feeling it favoured upper-caste hill tribes and disenfranchised the Tharus, Madhesis and the Janjatis. Ties deteriorated after protesters on the India-Nepal border blockaded the movement of goods vehicles—slowing or stopping critical fuel and medical supplies—amid suspicions in Nepal that New Delhi was backing the blockade. Modi’s Nepal counterpart K P Oli is perceived as anti-India and pro-China because of the blockade. This time Modi’s message to the Himalayan nation was loud and clear: India is willing to make amends for the past. In another message, he made it clear that New Delhi would like if Nepal gets closer to China. There is no doubt that New Delhi’s economic blockade of 2015 had dented Modi’s image in Nepal then. Seemingly mindful of this, Modi’s speeches during the latest visit in Nepal emphasised the cultural and economic links between the two besides paying tributes to Nepal’s election process held under the provisions of the 2015 constitution.

It is possible that Modi wanted to explore the symbolism in visiting Hindu shrines and use government-sponsored public felicitations, instead of government channels, for outreach. The Janakpur visit was a signal to the Madhesi people that they mattered to India. Nepal’s mild emphasis on revisiting the Indo-Nepal treaty gives an indication that bilateral ties are on the mend. Kathmandu’s assurance to be sensitive to India’s interests by not allowing its territory to be used against India indicates that only. One significant aspect of Modi’s visit is that it came ahead of Oli’s trip to China, with whom he had signed a major framework agreement regarding trade and transit in March 2016, around the time of the blockade. Modi has created the momentum and now the ball for sustaining the relationship is now in Oli’s court.

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