Kathmandu, Nepal – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi returned home on Saturday after a whirlwind tour of Nepal, which critics said was largely aimed at shoring up the support of Hindu voters at home.
Analysts say there was little to show by way of concrete achievements for the host country.
Modi began his two-day trip in Janakpur, a border town in southern Nepal, and spent much of his 29 hours in Nepal visiting and offering prayers at major Hindu pilgrimage sites, including Janaki Temple, Muktinath Temple and Pashupatinath Temple.
Modi’s Nepali counterpart, Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli went the extra mile to make his guest feel welcome in Nepal, where resentment against India has soared after New Delhi imposed a five-month blockade on Nepal in September 2015 over the country’s controversial constitution.
People in the southern region, known as the Madhesi or Terai, organised mass protests against the promulgation of Nepal’s first constitution drafted by elected representatives in 2015.
Madhesi activists said that the new constitution, which came after a decade of Maoist armed rebellion (1996-2006), failed to address their political and economic marginalisation. India had voiced its support for the Madhesi demand to amend the constitution.
‘High on style and low on substance’
The Nepalese prime minister travelled to Janakpur – that has been mentioned as the birthplace of Sita, the wife of Hindu god Ram, in the epic Ramayana – to welcome the Indian prime minister, with both leaders dressed in matching pink headgear and knee-length tunic with loose trousers.
Oli also made sure that Modi, who loves spectacle, was feted in public functions put on by the municipalities of Kathmandu and Janakpur, despite opposition from people who frowned upon such gestures only two years after the blockade, which caused a humanitarian crisis in the Himalayan nation.
Geja Sharma Wagle, a geostrategic analyst based in the capital, Kathmandu, said the visit was high on style and low on substance.
“The visit helped publicise Nepal’s religious sites, which were not widely known outside the country. Aside from that, I don’t see any significant achievement for Nepal,” he said.
“Modi’s real intent appears to visit Nepal as a pilgrim, but the government, in a bid to please Modi, upgraded it to the level of state visit,” he said.
Though it had religious overtones, some analysts saw the visit, a month after Oli’s trip to India, as New Delhi’s strategic move to undermine China’s increasing footprint in Nepal.
“China was the big elephant in the room. Nepal’s Foreign Minister [Pradeep] Gyawali was in Beijing recently. There are talks between the two countries about connectivity, but China cannot match India in Nepal,” said Swaran Singh, a professor of international relations at Jawahar Lal University in New Delhi.
“Chinese interest is purely commercial, but India is interested in exploring historical bonds between the two countries,” he said referring to joint inauguration by Modi and Oli of Ramayan Circuit, covering sites related to the Hindu epic Ramayana in India and Nepal.
Wagle described the initiative as India’s shift from relying on hard power such as blockade to soft power by highlighting religious and cultural linkages between the two neighbours.
“In his speeches, Modi repeatedly referred to the age-old religious bond between two countries. He wants to improve relations with Nepal by using soft power such as religion and culture,” he said.
‘Bonhomie’ between Oli and Modi
Oli, who rose to power early this year after capitalising on nationalist fervour among Nepalese following the blockade, was being pragmatic as the leader of the landlocked country, which relies heavily on India for supply, trade and access to the sea, according to Wagle.
“Modi hugged Oli after the press conference in Kathmandu. This is a rare gesture. He seems willing to deal with Nepal in a cordial manner,” he said.
Nepal was part of Modi’s hyperactive diplomacy, with the visit focused on clearing the cobwebs at both the personal and political levels between the two leaders, according to Singh.
The “bonhomie” between Oli and Modi was part of a recent trend in which informal summits and personal rapport between leaders were accorded significance in international relations, he said.
“This is the new style of meeting strategic goals. It’s emphasising personal chemistry between leaders to foster mutual trust. Major political leaders from Japan’s Shino Abe to Modi now emphasise personal camaraderie,” he said.
But the gesture wasn’t enough to win back some of the ordinary people of Nepal.
When he learned about Modi’s state reception in Kathmandu, Bishodip Lamichhane, a graphic designer, launched hashtag #BlockadeWasCrimeMrModi to express his anger. A day before Modi arrived in Nepal, the hashtag trended on Twitter.
“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,” he told Al Jazeera. “Majority of civilians opposed the blockade, but I realised that such a voice hadn’t found an outlet.”
Some experts such as Avinash Godbole, an assistant professor at Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities in New Delhi, however, noted that India and Nepal were eager to turn over a new leaf in their bilateral relations.
“India-Nepal relations have already moved on from that episode, and it is difficult to point as to who exactly was responsible for it. Stability in Nepalese politics is another reason to go ahead with the visit,” he said.
“This visit follows from PM Oli’s visit earlier this year and …[is] a move forward in the bilateral relations, which clearly slowed down after the constitution process in Nepal. Nepal being the only neighbour he has visited thrice shows the importance India attaches to Nepal.”