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Nepal Enthralled by Visit of India Premier, Who Hits ‘the Right Notes’

Author: Gardiner Harrisaug
Publication: The New York Times
Date: August 3, 2014
URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/04/world/asia/nepal-enthralled-by-visit-of-indian-prime-minister-narendra-modi-who-hits-the-right-notes.html?_r=0

In a visit that has transfixed this impoverished country, the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, told Nepal’s legislature on Sunday that its effort to write the nation’s Constitution was a sacred process.
“You are writing a treatise just like the rishis in the past wrote the Vedas and Upanishads,” Mr. Modi said, referring to Hindu sages and the religious scriptures they wrote.
The 50-minute speech, the first by a foreign leader before Nepal’s legislature, the Constituent Assembly, was clearly intended to urge Nepal’s leaders to finish the country’s Constitution, delayed for years.
Perhaps just as important, Mr. Modi avoided suggesting how Nepal’s legislators should resolve their remaining controversies over how to delineate states, whether to empower a president or prime minister, and whether Hinduism should be declared the state religion. Nepal, like India, is majority Hindu.
 “My work is neither to give directive nor to interfere with your work in Nepal,” Mr. Modi said, “because Nepal itself is a sovereign nation.”
Indian and Nepali analysts praised Mr. Modi.
“He hit all the right notes,” said Manjeet Kripalani, executive director of the Indian Council on Global Relations.
A deeply fractious country, Nepal has been unusually united in its embrace of Mr. Modi, the first Indian prime minister in 17 years to make a state visit here. Nepali and Indian flags fluttered throughout a warren of muddy streets in the capital, Katmandu, and large banners were hung across major intersections welcoming him. “Long Live Nepal-India Friendship,” they declared.
When Mr. Modi stepped off his airplane, a 19-gun salute boomed over the city. He was greeted by an obviously ailing Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, who recently returned from treatment in the United States for lung cancer.
Mr. Modi’s visit has inspired unusual consensus here that Nepal set aside decades of mistrust and accept Indian offers to help develop Nepal’s hydropower and tourism potentials. Such optimism has flowered before here only to be crushed by Indian indifference or Nepali mistrust, but there is real hope that this time will be different. Mr. Modi’s campaign messages of economic development and good governance resonated strongly in Nepal, which has been deprived of both for decades.
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to begin fresh and build a level of trust that needs to be developed to define relations for the next 50 years,” said Sridhar K. Khatri, former executive director of the South Asia Center for Policy Studies in Katmandu.
A last-minute dispute over the wording of a major hydropower development agreement meant that the two sides signed only minor agreements on Sunday. But there is considerable hope that the power deal will materialize.
“His visit has brought great hope,” Ayush Shrestha, a 29-year-old marketing executive, said at a Katmandu restaurant. “It has led even our own political parties to sit down, put aside their differences and discuss the agenda with Modi.”
Mr. Modi was elected in May with the biggest majority in Parliament and the highest hopes for transforming India showered on any leader in 30 years. Domestically, his tentative legislative steps since then have disappointed some supporters, but his outreach to India’s long-ignored neighbors has received almost universal praise. South Asia is one of the world’s poorest and least integrated regions in the world, and India’s longtime preoccupation with domestic matters is partly to blame.
In recent years, China has stepped into the vacuum left by India, leading New Delhi to assume responsibilities in its own neighborhood. In a first for an Indian prime minister, Mr. Modi invited to his inauguration the other members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, a group of eight countries, including Pakistan, its longtime foe. Mr. Modi first visited Bhutan and is soon headed to Sri Lanka.
“The warm embrace Modi has received in Nepal raises the question of whether China is really the threat to India’s influence that some feared,” Ms. Kripalani said.
It is unclear whether Mr. Modi’s visit will inspire political compromise in Nepal, where legislative acrimony is a constant. A 10-year insurgency ended in 2006, but a resulting Constituent Assembly failed after four years of effort to write a Constitution. Paralysis ensued until elections in November led to the rout of the dominant Maoist parties.
Ruled for centuries by monarchs, Nepal has 125 ethnic groups, 127 spoken languages, scores of castes and three distinct ecosystems that have long divided its 27 million people into feuding communities, making political consensus difficult and hurting the country’s economy.
But nearly everyone seems exhausted by a continuing power crisis that leaves Katmandu mostly dark at night. A 1996 deal in which India was to build a massive dam in Nepal led to considerable political opposition at the time, but most of those who opposed that deal now advocate more such arrangements.
“Even the Maoists now acknowledge that we need to cooperate with India because we don’t have the money on our own to develop our hydropower,” said Prashant Jha, author of a book on contemporary Nepali politics.
Before his speech, some analysts worried that Mr. Modi would urge Nepal to adopt a constitutional provision declaring the country a Hindu state, as royalist factions have advocated. An avowed Hindu nationalist, Mr. Modi is scheduled to visit the Pashupatinath temple, one of Hinduism’s holiest places, on Monday, an arrangement made in part to coincide with a religiously auspicious day.
“To avoid any misperception, Modi must clearly support the current draft Constitution’s identification of Nepal as a ‘federal, secular democratic republic,’ ” C. Raja Mohan, an Indian foreign affairs analyst, wrote in an opinion piece on Sunday.
In his speech, Mr. Modi described Nepal as a “federal democratic republic,” dropping the “secular,” long a fraught word in Indian politics as well. But he did not call for explicit Hindu identification and said Nepal was “the birthplace of Lord Buddha.”
All in all, Mr. Modi got high marks. “Modi is giving us a good moment,” Bhekh B. Thapa, a former Nepali minister of foreign affairs and finance, said in an interview. “Whether it will yield results, time will tell.”

- Bhadra Sharma contributed reporting.
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