Prime Minister Narendra Modi, hopped across to Nepal to mark Buddha Poornima celebrations in Lumbini earlier this week. This one-day visit marks a renewed effort to amend ties with a long trusted partner and friend in the region. Lumbini is the birthplace of Buddha and for many years India and Nepal have not managed to cooperate and integrate it within the larger Buddhist place-of-interest framework. There had been angst for decades among the Nepali citizens regarding India taking away the cream of Buddhist tourismcircuit, while ignoring the birthplace. Meanwhile, Lumbini became a place of interest for China which has been using all avenues possible to increase its strength in Nepal. It has in the past announced as part of its muscular external infrastructure policy the possibility of investing nearly $3billion in Lumbini to make it a world peace city and construct a railway line connecting Nepal with Tibet. The status of many of these announcements are on hold at present, but one doesn’t know when they can be revived. The Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, enmeshed in shared cultural contexts of the region, has been an interest area for many power blocs including the US, European Union and China for some decades now. China has been on alert to the changing influence spheres in Nepal and has painstakingly built up its share of supporting voices amongst the political and cultural elite. Last month Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi was in Nepal to ratchet up support in its favour from the different factions of the Nepalese Communist Party. It is understood that Wang Yi (also a known India-baiter), insisted on the quarrelling factions of the NepaleseCommunist Party to stay united and work towards a larger agenda (dictated by Chinese communist party). It was during the reign of Nepalese Communist Party Prime MinisterKP Sharma Oli that relationship between India and Nepal tanked to its historic low. He had nearly acted as an extended arm of Beijing’sgeopolitical strategy. Clearly, China has been trying to isolate India’s long-term partners in the region by muscling its way into their domestic security,infrastructure and economic issues.
The Prime Minister’s visit to Nepal, along with some other initiatives taken by the government in the past few months, suggests India’s reinvigorated enthusiasm to engage with its immediate neighbourhood. In April, just before foreignsecretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla retired, a high-level inter-ministerial meeting took place to focus on India’s neighbourhood first policy. It saw participation from the ministries of home, finance, commerce, fisheries and defence to name a few. It deliberated on ways to improve roads and other border infrastructure with Nepal, starting railway link with Bangladesh and providing humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan and Myanmar. Nepal was the focus during the meeting given the historical and cultural ties with the nation. India has done well by refreshing its cultural shared narrative with Nepal and announced a bunch of new measures to improve people to people connect. India’s willingness to develop sister-city relations between Lumbini and Kushinagar, considered the holiest sites for Buddhists, has been well received and could be the game changer towards integration of Nepal in the tourism circuit and improving economic relations between the two countries. India has also signed 6 MoUs with Nepal during the PM’s visit,5 of which are on improving educational and cultural relations while the 6th relates to hydel power project. India and Nepal blessed with the abundant wealth from the Himalayas need to focus on reviving their deep and rich shared culturalheritage while making way for a new age bilateral relation.
(The writer is a policy analyst. The views expressed are personal.)