Sankar Ray is a senior journalist who has worked in various news and current affairs magazines, has spawned scores of good journalists and has in-depth knowledge of global issues, especially Left politics in India and abroad
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi made five visits to Nepal between August 2014 and September 2018. He was accompanied by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and External Affairs secretary Sujatha Singh, but without Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj. The then Prime Minister of Nepal, Sushil Koirala, welcomed Modi at the Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu. Afterward, Modi visited the Pashupatinath Temple where he offered prayers.
Gestures from top political leaders of Nepal, crossing party lines, were explicit. Koirala, who represented the Nepali Congress apart, the then chairman of Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center) Pushpa Kamal Dahal and chairman CPN (United Marxist Leninist) Khadga Prasad Oli, the present PM met with him with an open mind. The then Foreign minister of Nepal Mahendra Bahadur Pandey had struck am emotional tone: “Modi is result-oriented and gives priority to economic prosperity. He wants to consolidate ties with Nepal”, believing that the new government in New Delhi, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party that got absolute majority in the 543-member Lower House of the Parliament after 25 years, was genuinely interested in implementing the ‘neighbourhood first policy.’
There is no confirmation as yet whether the ₹ 10,000 crore India had promised Nepal has been disbursed. The hidden motive of Modi, more committed to rightwing Hindu nationalism than the first BJP premier of India, the late Atal Behari Vajpayee, is now almost open. In his last visit in September 2018, he inaugurated the first cross-border rail link between the two countries, Jainagar in Bihar to Janakpur in Nepal, spanning 29 kilometres.
But critics, especially in academic circles, snap fingers at the Indian PM for the latter’s keenness to buck up pro-Indian elements in Nepal slanted towards the Sangh Parivar the Madhesis.
Modi’s visit was to participate in a major Hindu festival if not mainly at a temple dedicated to ‘goddess’ Sita in Janakpur, the heartland of Madhesis of Nepal and named after the mythical King Janaka of Mithila and father of Sita. Modi aspired to lead a symbolic ‘baraat’ or wedding procession up to Janaki Mandir in Janakpur, believed to have been the home Sita, along with some BJP leaders in tow, a strategic gesture ahead of the Lok Sabha elections keeping in mind the voters of states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar bordering Nepal.
Dr Pramod Jaiswal, senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi, and Nepali by birth, questioned Modi’s intention ingenuously in an article in mid-May 2018: “Modi’s desire to start his visit from Janakpur in the Madhesi-majority Terai region had two motivating elements to it.
“First, the government in Kathmandu had cancelled his visit to Janakpur and the Muktinath temple in northern Nepal during his second visit in 2014. Second, Janakpur is both the putative birthplace of Sita and, as the temporary capital of Province 2, important to the Madhesi plains people’s longstanding demand for proportional representation in the Nepalese parliament through a constitutional amendment, which New Delhi has pushed for through diplomatic pressure and direct economic interference.
“India had actively backed the 135-day blockade that had frozen essential cross-border trade from September 2015 to February 2016 (a week after the constitution was promulgated). This time round, Kathmandu allowed Modi to not only visit both venues but also to use them to attempt to endear himself to this Hindu-majority country riven by anti-India – and specifically anti-Modi – protests.”
The friendliness in the attitude of Kathmandu towards New Delhi suffered a diplomatic fracture during the second NDA period. The gap that became yawning was a boon for Beijing. Modi’s hyperbolic promise of beginning a new chapter in Indo-Nepal diplomacy proved to be a pious platitude.
On the contrary, China has slowly and steadily been dislodging India as a friend of Nepal. Bejing has extended its hand to the land-locked state taking advantage of a combined communist party in power Nepal Communist Party, formed out of merger of Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) and Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center).
Beijing and Kathmandu inked an MoU on Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative to enhance connectivity of ports, roads, railways, aviation and communications in the framework of the Trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network.
New Delhi questioned whether the trans-Himalayan railway up to Kathmandu is techno- economically viable, given the reality that it has to traverse through several tunnels, construction of which will be costly, to make the railway reach the lower mountains and plains, let alone the high seismic risks. The pro-Maoist rulers paid no heed, as they emotionally appended to the Communist Party of China that has been ruling the People’s Republic of China for 68 years.
Already, the Chinese Qinghai-Tibet railway is operational up to Shigatse (Xigaze) and is expected to soon reach the Nepal border (Rasuwagadi) in Kerung (Gyirong). From Kerung it will be a 100-km-long railway to Kathmandu. A combined transportation system of rail and truck will substantially reduce the journey. The entire journey takes only 10 days, much less than the 35 days it takes through the maritime route via Kolkata. The rail route through Kerung will hugely provide a boost to Sino-Nepal trade and commerce.
Sonar Bangla Lost
Look at Bangladesh whose people saw China under Mao Zedong as their enemy was befriended by post-Mao China. A take-off in this bilateral friendship was the groundwork for cooperation, linked to the visit of the Chinese President Xi in mid- October 2016, when Bangladesh and China signed 27 deals and memorandum of understandings, covering financing of infrastructure, energy, information and communication projects, 15 agreements and MoUs and 12 loan and mutual agreements, according to the then foreign secretary of Bangladesh, Md Shahidul Haque. The two countries agreed to work together in counterterrorism partnership as well. There had already been a robust military tie as well. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Bangladesh by that time became the largest buyer of Chinese arms, second only to Pakistan. Bangladesh accounted for 20 per cent of all the Chinese arms export during the past five years ended 2016. Unnerved, as if woken up under compulsion, the Modi government signed a $4.5 billion concessional line of credit for 17 projects in the infrastructure and power sector in favour of Bangladesh during the visit of Bangladesh PM Sk Hasina Wazed to New Delhi in April 2017.
Another $500 million credit line was extended for defence equipment plus 13 business-to-business agreements for approximately $9 million were inked with select few Indian business houses.
But Modi’s irrepressible penchant to see the world as the Indian premier seemed too lavish to keep the national exchequer on pins and needles.
The gross expenditure incurred by the foreign trips during his five-year term (2014-19) is no less than Rs 7,266.94 crore, including the related publicity spend. But the results have been mostly negative, if not destructive, as bilateral relations with none of the neighbouring countries – Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka – let alone Pakistan show signs of camaraderie.
Officials who call the shots at the foreign policy leave no nerve unstrained to discover new digits in diplomacy, citing fragments of apparent strides reflected in economic deals with Japan, a few Middle East countries , Maldives and the like.
Even deals for economic co-operation, MoUs have not all ensured sustainable efficacy. Take the reinvigorated economic and financial cooperation with Japan that pledged an investment of ₹ 33.8 billion in government and private sector investments over five years, following Modi’s meeting his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe.
Japan has already invested in the $90 billion Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor that envisages setting up of new cities, industrial parks, ports and airports, aside from a 1,483 km high-speed rail and road line. Tokyo is genuinely keen on implementing Modi’s dream project, the Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train service, for which the first tranche of committed Official Development Assistance loan of Japanese ¥ 89,547 million (₹5,500 crore ) has been released.
The funding body, Japan International Cooperation Agency, agreed to 80 per cent of investment cost as soft loan. But there are doubts about whether the National Democratic Alliance government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (alone having absolute majority in the 542-member Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Parliament), have done the spadework for its implementation.
The National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited, constituted to build it, is yet to acquire the essential professionalism to take on the challenge. It has to legally acquire around 1,400 hectares of land in Gujarat and Maharashtra. Of this nearly 1,120 hectares are privately owned and approximately 6,000 land owners are to be compensated.
Some 1,000 farmers, mostly of Surat, petitioned the Gujarat High Court stating that they don’t want to give their land for the bullet train project. Moreover, the JICA set out guidelines for setting up of a committee for environmental and social impact assessments.
The farmers have alleged that no such committee has yet been constituted. As a result, release of the second tranche of credit is in a limbo. And the JICA has started pulling up the NHSRCL, although the latter tries to negate such an impression and asserts that it is committed to take care of the interests of the affected farmers, adding that all necessary steps with regard to submission of various reports such as social impact assessment, environment impact assessment and indigenous people plan, have been submitted to JICA.
One can’t miss some basic fault lines in Modi’s external affairs policy-in-practice, let alone the awkward concept of keeping the Minister of EA confined to South Block and the PM seeing the world resembling a government-paid joyride.
The questions that arise are many: Did Modi define national interest or articulate a strategic vision, or even enunciate his media-hyped ‘neighbourhood policy? The answer is a simple NO. Instead, the world around witnessed gradual decimation of the prestigious independent foreign policy. There was showbiz summitry, coupled with and subservience to Uncle Sam. But there was a lot of opportunities that the NDA-2 could have seized for breaking new ground like ‘stitching together a coalition of rimland states in the east to ring-fence China.’ Shamelessly, the Modi government walked into the US trap of weakening the non-aligned foreign policy. Which was why the 2 X 2 talks between the USA and India took place in the beginning of September 2018 in New Delhi, ostensibly to ramp up strategic relations but it helped the US penetrate — horizontally and vertically — India’s most secret communications and command and control networks, including the Strategic Forces Command overseeing nuclear security. The US side was represented by its Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Jim while on the Indian side was the comparatively soft-spoken and most often side-lined Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and the garrulous and completely ineffective but theatrical Nirmala Sitharaman, Union Defence Minister. The latter signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement, an emblem of subservience.
The NDA too has been more committed to belligerence than a peaceful approach, overtly with Pakistan and covertly with Nepal. Strangely – if not ludicrously enough – after the Balakot strike in the wee hours of 26 February, it was not the defence secretary Sanjay Mitra, but the external affairs secretary Vijay Keshav Gokhale who briefed the media (on condition of not taking questions). The latter said, “In an intelligence-led operation in the early hours of today, India struck the biggest training camp of JeM (Jaish-e-Mohammad) in Balakot. In this operation, a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated. This facility at Balakot was headed by Maulana Yousuf Azhar (alias Ustad Ghouri), brother-in-law of Masood Azhar Chief of JeM”.
He claimed it was a ‘non-military preemptive action… specifically targeted at the JeM camp’, contrary to the news from the spot by the Reuters and video footages in the social media. Furthermore, the notion that ‘a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated’ was a matter of suspicion for the international media.
The CEO of MoEA reminds me of Dr Henri Kissinger, National Security Advisor to the former US President Richard Milhous Nixon. “Military men are just dumb, stupid animals to be used as pawns in foreign policy.” I don’t know how Kissinger would have reacted had he been asked to comment on Gokhale willingly agreeing to poke his nose into defence affairs at the cost of his credibility.