Will India's Nepal Policy Change?

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Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda attended Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's swearing-in ceremony on Sunday, implying that the two neighbours have had long friendly relations, whereas the invitation of foreign dignitaries to Modi's swearing-in suggests that India, during Modi's third term as Prime Minister, is inclined to keep its neighbours engaged and relations with them trouble-free during his tenure. Following the swearing-in, our Prime Minister wished PM Modi a successful third term, emphasising the importance of our interdependence, mutual respect, and shared goals for regional security and prosperity in our bilateral relationship. 

A glance at the results of the 2024 general elections shows that, although the BJP and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won a majority with 293 seats, experts say Modi has suffered a setback as a result of his party's truncated mandate in the 2024 elections. However, the choice to retain Modi as Prime Minister enabled him to match the record of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who became Prime Minister three times after his party won consecutive elections. 

Reliance on partners 

Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which only won 240 seats, failed short of a comfortable majority of 273 seats in the 543-seat Lok Sabha, or Lower House of Parliament, so he had to rely heavily on regional parties, primarily the JDU of Bihar's Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and the  Telugu Desam Party (TDP) of Andhra Pradesh's Chandrababu Nayadu, along with several smaller parties of the National Democratic Alliance, to form the government, run the government's affairs, and maintain its domestic and foreign affairs. The BJP won 282 seats in 2014 and 303 in 2019, enabling the BJP to create a majority government, including some NDA partners. 

PM Modi and his allies earlier targeted 400 seats. According to key opposition leader Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress and a few others, this reduced mandate prevented the BJP and its allies from altering India's constitution as they intended. The opposition leaders saw the election results as a way of safeguarding the constitution. Critics claim that Modi's BJP and National Democratic Alliance (NDA) success in the general election was hampered by their inability to address critical local issues in many states, particularly Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, where the BJP suffered significant reverses. The BJP, a pro-Hindu party, suffered another setback as its candidate lost in Ayodhya, where the government had constructed a splendid Ram Temple. 

Similarly, many cited the anti-incumbency factor as playing a role in the BJP's poor showing, a result of the party's failure to curb rising price increases, the failure to address problems pertaining to India farmers who wanted the government to make minimum support prices for their products, and the Modi government's Agneeveer policy, which saw the plan to recruit Indian youths in the Indian Army for a period of only four years, being heavily criticised. They argue that the Agneeveer proposal is unreasonable because it would deprive many young people aspiring to be soldiers of their pension rights and other perks.

Meanwhile, Rahul Gandhi's 'Bharat Jodo Yatra', in which he travelled from Kashmir to Kanyakumari to raise issues against the BJP-led NDA government, aided his party's improved performance. The Indian Congress won 99 seats, up from 42 in 2014 and 55 in 2019. Similarly, the India Alliance, led by the Indian Congress, won 233 seats, increasing the opposition's presence in parliament. Many experts saw the outcome as a setback for Modi and Amit Shah. Besides the Congress, other Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) partners, notably Akhilesh Yadav's Samajwadi Party, made big wins against the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, while senior veteran Sharad Pawar's NCP-Congress alliance thrashed the BJP in Maharashtra. The ruling BJP had little success in the South Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. 

Meanwhile, many believe that India's ties with its neighbours will stay reasonably stable during Modi's third term. Many Nepalis believe India will maintain its existing position towards the tiny Himalayan country, which has an important role in regional geopolitics. It is also true that when India perceives Nepal as failing to meet its expectations, it will make every effort to put further pressure on the nation, as it did in 2015 with its embargo. 

Despite Nepal's pushback on several fronts, India, led by Modi, will continue to exert influence on her small neighbour. The two countries' border dispute, particularly over land in Kalapani, Susta, and a few other sites, is less likely to be resolved to Nepal's satisfaction. India will remain concerned about Nepal's relations with China and oppose Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects. Because of India's objection, the two international airports at Bhairahawa and Pokhara, constructed with Chinese assistance and loans, have remained inoperable. 

Bilateral issues 

Other issues, such as exporting electricity to India from hydroelectric projects constructed or financed by China, have been difficult because India has stated unequivocally that it will not buy power from Chinese-built projects. Nepal's attempt to export power to Bangladesh has been hindered by the necessity of supply lines that pass across Indian territory. India reacted negatively to the Nepali government's recent plan to print the ‘pointed’ Nepali map, which included the disputed Kalapani territories, in its 100-rupee currency. Only time will tell whether Nepal's outstanding difficulties with India are resolved during Modi's third term. 

Let us hope that the rise of Bihar's Chief Minister as a key NDA partner, as well as Uttar Pradesh's Akhlesh Yadav as a strong opposition leader, will help change the scenario to some extent. Because Bihar and Uttar Pradesh border Nepal, the Himalayan nation may expect concessions from its southern neighbour when concerns affecting Nepal and these two states arise. For example, India must see Nepal favourably when it comes to flood management on the Koshi River, since floods create havoc in Nitish Kumar's Bihar. Similarly, India may not impose restrictions on the shipment of certain goods to these two and other states bordering Nepal. Overall, India's approach towards Nepal under PM Modi's third term would be influenced by the aspirations and desires of his NDA partners as well as the voices of a stronger opposition. 

(Upadhyay is former managing editor of this daily)

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