Symbolism has its place in foreign policy, but it is never a substitute for substance. Narendra Modi struck the right notes, both symbolic and substantive, during his trip to Nepal. His visit to Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu, the first by an Indian prime minister, was meant to strike a chord with the common people in a country where religious and cultural traditions survive political upheavals. His address to Nepalís Constituent Assembly, though, was a clear statement of intent, outlining what he wants to do with India-Nepal relations. Mr Modi did well to make two categorical points ó that India respects Nepalís sovereignty and that it is for the people of that country to decide what kind of a Constitution they will have. His message that India will be happy to see Nepal write a federal, republican Constitution is unexceptionable because all major political parties in the country agree on this issue. Mr Modi also did well to steer clear of any prescription as to what should form the basis of federalism in Nepal. Sections of Nepalís politicians often accuse New Delhi of interfering in the countryís internal politics. They also have some misgivings about the alleged Indian role in the writing of Nepalís Constitution. Mr Modiís messages should clear the air, at least partially.
However, no government in New Delhi can afford to ignore political and other developments in Nepal. It is public knowledge that India played a decisive role in persuading Nepalís Maoists to end their 10-year-long armed insurgency. But there has been a drift in India-Nepal relations over the past few years. It was partly due to the failure of Nepalís political parties to complete the Constitution-drafting process during the term of the first Constituent Assembly. But it was also partially due to confusions in New Delhi about the changing nature of its engagement with Kathmandu. The result was a perception in Kathmandu that New Delhi wants to play the ĎBig Brotherí in Nepal without actually helping the country in substantive ways. Mr Modi has now promised that work will start within a year on the 5,600 MW Pancheshwar project that had remained stalled for 18 years. His trip also brings some hope for a mutually acceptable power trading agreement between the two countries. But India has a record of not keeping its promises to Nepal. Mr Modi has an opportunity to change that.