Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday arrived in Nepal for a long-day visit to Lumbini on the occasion of Buddha Purnima. He returned home this afternoon on a special helicopter of the Indian Air Force. Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba bade farewell to the Indian Prime Minister at the helipad constructed near the International Buddhist Prayer Centre and Auditorium in Lumbini. PM Modi and his counterpart Deuba held bilateral talks after a series of events.
PM Narendra Modi, in his speech at the Buddha Jayanti event in Lumbini, said India and Nepal relations are unshakeable like the Himalayas. He also said that India and Nepal’s ever-strengthening friendship will benefit all entire humanity in the emerging global situation. The construction of the Buddhist Centre comes decades after most foreign nations, including the US, China, Canada, France, Germany, and Thailand, among others, built their centers in Lumbini.
Mero Tribune talks with Dr. Ashok Swain regarding Modi’s Nepal visit and Nepal-India’s relationship-
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday concluded an hours-long Nepal visit. It may look purely like a religious one but did he try to take political advantage?
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi doesn’t do anything that will not benefit him politically. His religious visits to Nepal in the past, to Janakpur in May 2018, and now to Lumbini are always keeping his Hindu right-support base in India in mind. Otherwise, while he was in Buddha’s birthplace for an hour only, what was the point of talking about the huge Ram temple he was building on a controversial site in India’s Ayodhya.
Similarly, signing an MoU to establish Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar Chair at Lumbini Buddhist University also gains political brownies at home. Narendra Modi has been politically successful by cleverly amalgamating religion with politics, and he also thinks that the same formula will successfully combine religion with diplomacy. But, his religious diplomacy has failed to improve India-Nepal relations in the last eight years.
There is an erroneous notion in some sections of Indian media and society about the birthplace of Gautam Buddha. Does this visit help in carving out that?
Gautam Buddha’s birthplace is in Lumbini, which is a historical fact. Narendra Modi confirming Lumbini as Buddha’s birthplace has not changed some of India’s perceptions in the past, nor will it change now. A section of India also benefits by limiting ‘Buddhist tourism’ to India only. Moreover, what Modi says outside India and his message to his Hindu right-wing fan base in India differ. Modi also repeatedly praises Gandhi abroad, but his supporters in India openly celebrate Gandhi’s assassin. I doubt what Modi says about Buddha’s birthplace in Nepal will ever say Budha was born in Nepal, not India while he is in India.
Why do you think Modi kept away from Gautama Buddha Worldwide Airport?
It is very simple because the Gautama Buddha International Airport has been built with Chinese funding. He flew over the airport in his helicopter to land on a newly made helipad close to the Mayadevi temple. This is nothing but pure meanness and sends a very wrong message to the host. India also needs to accept that China has been the largest foreign direct investor in Nepal for the last six years in a row. And India’s economy is no match now to compete with China.
How is the Indian foreign policy establishment looking at Nepal right now?
India’s foreign policy establishment is still in the 20th Century mindset, and Indian policymakers still believe that they dominate the geopolitics in South Asia. The situation has changed dramatically in recent decades. India’s relations with Nepal are in a terrible state, and there is no attempt ongoing to address the critical border dispute in the Kalapani region. While India’s dam-building in Nepal has become quite controversial, a new Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed on Arun IV during Modi’s visit on Monday. India needs to realize Nepal and India’s development are intricately related, and that realization is yet to come.
India has formally proposed Naveen Srivastava as the new ambassador to Nepal, who is an expert in dealing with China. Do you think India wants to counter Beijing’s efforts to widen its influence in the Himalayan country’s politics and economy?
This is nothing new that India faces a serious challenge from China to maintain its traditional sphere of influence in South Asia. India understands it needs to counter Beijing’s influence on Kathmandu, but it has no comprehensive strategy on how to do it. A China-expert as an ambassador or a religious visit by the Prime Minister is not the way to gain back Nepal’s friendship. India needs to make a sincere effort to address the roots of bilateral irritation, and also it should start treating Nepal with respect and as an equal.
Dr. Ashok Swain is a Professor and Head of the Department of Peace and Conflict Research and UNESCO Chair of International Water Cooperation at Uppsala University, Sweden. Swain received his Ph.D. from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, in 1991, and since then, he has been teaching at the Uppsala University. Swain has written extensively on new security challenges, international water sharing, environment, conflict and peace, and development issues. He has also worked as a consultant for various UN agencies, OSCE, NATO, EU, IISS, Arab League, OXFAM.