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Give & take: sacred timber and tilak

- Modi’s prayer and prods in Nepal
Narendra Modi at the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu on Monday. (PTI)

Kathmandu, Aug. 4: Between a private prayer and several private prods, Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrapped up a two-day trip that has left Nepal awash with expectation of a turn in the low tide of ties.

Kathmandu these past couple of days has looked like a Modi fairground, festooned with celebratory banners and arches. To that political iconography will surely be added images of the man who emerged from an hour-long consecration at the Pashupatinath temple, sandal paste smeared across his forehead, a vermilion sash across his shoulders.

A ritual rite at Pashupatinath in the month of shraavan was an opportunity Modi had long been scouting; it came to be on the propitious last Monday of shraavan festivities. That he submitted himself to an elaborate prostration before the Pashupati deities and brought along the gift of 2,500 kilos of white sandalwood — India’s export ban on the rare and sacred timber broken as a special exception — will be lace to the Modi lore.

From homes to crossroads, and offices to eateries, the chatter has mostly concerned a certain visitor from India who has unveiled a neighbourly — rather than big brotherly — pose of comradeship and common purpose.

“You have won our hearts and overwhelmed us with what you said in the Constituent Assembly (CA) yesterday,” President Ram Baran Yadav told Modi during a short forenoon meeting.

Later, the Maoist duo Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai expressed to him their appreciation of his assessment of a nation in transition. “We have been deeply moved by how well you have absorbed the changes in Nepal, even though you have not been directly connected to us,” they said in a closed-door meeting with the Prime Minister.

“We are very satisfied that you have understood the enormity of the changes that are taking place,” they said.

Modi on his part congratulated the Maoists’ resolve to shun arms and said “history will be grateful” for their decision to join the democratic process.

The consonance between Modi and the Maoists, who represent far ideological poles, could in fact have been one of the more significant shifts this visit represented.

Modi had hitherto been sceptical about the Maoists’ commitment to mainstream democratic politics; the Maoists have harboured suspicions about Modi encouraging Sangh-backed monarchists in Nepal.

Over the last two days, and especially with Modi’s express endorsement of a federal, democratic, republican (FDR) Nepal, some of those misgivings appear to have crumbled.

“The Prime Minister is very clear India needs to back the peace process and constitution writing unreservedly because he believes a stable Nepal is key to development in the region,” an official said on background.

“To that end, convincing the Maoists of India’s intentions was essential. That’s why the Prime Minister may have gone out of his way to applaud the Maoist decision to join the mainstream.”

The exhort to unitedly and speedily write out the new constitution was a recurrent theme with Prime Minister Modi in closed-door meetings with political groups through the afternoon.

To the ruling Nepali Congress and the UML, to the Maoists, to the Right-wing Rashtriya Prajatantra Party and to the Madhesi (Terai) leaders he had broadly the same thing to say: give yourselves the constitution you want as soon as you can, and then the real rebuilding of new Nepal can begin.

The Madhesi leaders were a bit disappointed Modi did not specifically spell out the need to address their demands in his CA speech. When some of them told Modi they had been left disheartened, the Prime Minister is believed to have told them he could not be seen as “creating walls” in Nepal.

He referred to sections of his speech that spoke of an inclusive and all-embracing constitution and counselled the Madhesi leaders that it was “in your own interest” to adopt a united, rather than a regionally divisive, approach to constitution writing.

He reminded them, sagely, that his mission was to rebuild ties with Nepal as a nation and he had to be necessarily nuanced about championing Madhesi rights.

A joint statement issued at the end of the visit reflected the Modi government’s willingness to not only fast-track stalled promises but also to lend Nepal an ear. New Delhi has decided to open itself to reviewing, updating and revising the 1950 Friendship Treaty that has often been a thorn in bilateral sides.

Foreign secretaries of the two countries have been tasked to take a fresh look “based on Nepal’s suggestions” so that the treaty reflects new realities.

The statement also spoke of concluding negotiations on the power trade agreement and the project development agreement within the next 45 days. A whole range of other infrastructure projects, including road and bridge links, have been promised as proof of India’s restated commitment to Nepal’s development.

Modi may want to keep a keen eye on how swiftly his government moves from pledge to delivery. He will be back in Kathmandu for the Saarc summit in November, and he wouldn’t want the Nepali mood on him altered.