|Prime Minister Narendra Modi halts his convoy and meets people who lined the streets of Kathmandu on Sunday. (PTI picture)
Kathmandu, Aug. 3: On a day he may have reformatted India-Nepal ties, Prime Minister Narendra Modi nudged the Himalayan nation to a giant leap in the baby steps it has been taking towards republican democracy.
“We do not wish to tell you what to do or to interfere in your work,” he told a packed Nepali Constituent Assembly (CA) this afternoon. “But we wish to applaud your imagination of an inclusive, federal, democratic and republican (FDR) Nepal of which all sections of Nepalis can feel a part, a vibrant bouquet with all the divergent aromas of this great country of yours.”
With that single exhort, Modi extinguished speculation on any whispered encouragement to monarchist revivalism and signalled endorsement to mainstream efforts to give Nepal a modern constitution.
“Nepal is a sovereign nation,” he went on. “We are not here to direct you, we only wish you should have the constitution you want as soon as possible and we wish you to soar above Himalayan heights. What we can do to help you achieve this I pledge myself to do.”
It was unclear until yesterday if Modi would go the whole hog and spell out support for an FDR Nepal. Thus far, South Block has sufficed itself with a “durable and inclusive constitution” formulation.
But there is a section in the Indian foreign office, Indian Ambassador Ranjit Rae included, that had lobbied behind closed doors to hand out a fulsome and unambiguous signal to Nepali constitution writers.
No less significant to the political consolidation of post-monarchy Nepal was Modi’s effusive and repeated praise for Maoists who had shunned arms and joined the mainstream. “Nepal is emerging as an exemplar to the world in how arms can be given up in the pursuit of peaceful politics,” he said. “I want to congratulate those most who have left the bullet for the ballot and given themselves to writing what will be a golden page in Nepali history. Emperor Asoka had turned from ‘yuddha’ (war) to Buddha and people in Nepal have done the same again, they have moved from ‘astras’ (arms) to ‘shastras’ (meaning constitution writing), I cannot salute them more. Arms cannot achieve what peace can and the world is going to learn that once again from what is happening in Nepal.”
The meaning of such fulsome praise could not have been lost on Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai, sitting at the head of the Maoist benches. Nepal’s Maoists have watched the ascent of a pracharak Prime Minister in India with some scepticism; the Modi they heard today would have dissolved much of that.
Modi’s speech — the symbolic centrepiece of this visit -— was a deft mix of religio-cultural referencing and emotive political messaging. If he spoke of stringing spiritual link from Somnath to Kashi to Pashupatinath, he also made earthly common cause with the host nation.
“If Nepal goes hungry, it can’t but pain us; if Nepal does not sleep in peace, neither can we in India; we have not won a single war without Nepalis shedding blood in our defence, how can we not be grateful? You have a devastating tragedy facing you (the Sunkosi landslide) and it pains us, we have sent help before you even asked, before we feel one with you. Tell us what we need to do in your journey towards a better future and we are here to stride with you shoulder to shoulder,” Modi said, to resounding applause.
He triggered a booster round when he mocked Indian Prime Ministers for giving Nepal the miss. “We are so close to each other, we are side by side and yet it has taken 17 years for us to come,” he taunted his predecessors’ long absence. “But don’t worry, I am coming back soon (for the Saarc summit in September) and then I shall make it a point to visit the birthplace of Sita (Janakpur) and Buddha (Lumbini).” (Both places are in the Terai region close along the border with India.)
Modi opened in signature style with a preamble in Nepali which was lauded with an all-round sigh of surprise in the two-tiered Birendra International Convention Centre which also doubles as home to the CA. He then turned to 40 minutes of extempore Hindi that left the House near-mesmerised and drew recurrent rounds of approval.
The embrace of Modi's discourse was palpable as Nepali MPs trickled out of the CA and hurried to join a reception hosted by Ambassador Rae.
“With one shot, he has got through to our political leaders, the Nepali people at large and the Nepalis employed in India,” gushed young Nepali Congress MP Gagan Thapa. “He came from the heart and he has touched our hearts with his directness. He was talking to us, not talking down to us, and he spoke to the entire Nepali nation in a way no other Indian leader has spoken in the memory of generations. Some fellow MPs were joking as he spoke that on today’s showing, he can win an election anywhere in Nepal.”
Another prominent NC MP, Shashank Koirala, went a step ahead to say today’s was a “historic and pathbreaking” message from Modi. “It marks a break from decades of Nehruvian divide-and-rule diplomacy,” Koirala contended. “Modi’s is a new political signal, it is political, it is equal, it is a message from a friend and neighbour, not one from a big brother.”
Even Padmaratna Tuladhar, a key track II peace negotiator with the Maoists from their underground days, said he had been left “surprisingly impressed”.
Tuladhar told The Telegraph at the evening reception: “We had another impression of Modi, as a Hindutva-vadi leader, but he has surprised me with his clarity and directness. Most important, the way he went out to appreciate the Maoist leadership.”
Modi may have left more than just Maoist ranks surprised with his demeanour.
Twice during a day that invited the Nepali political class to take fresh measure of who he is and what he means, Prime Minister Modi broke protocol to halt his convoy and embrace the Kathmandu street — once on his way to the CA and another time just as he left for the soirťe hosted by Ambassador Rae.
Both times, he was greeted with gusto. His route was banked by the citizenry wherever he went, there wasn’t a street in town not festooned with India-Nepal flags.
That he has promised to come again soon may well leave the managers of Kathmandu’s chaotic traffic a little concerned.