Symbolism counts for a lot in diplomacy, and few leaders understand this better than Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and his Indian counterpart Narendra Damodardas Modi. PM Modi’s projection of raw confidence during his electrifying speech in the Nepali parliament in 2014, when he mesmerized Nepali MPs and common folks alike, will never be forgotten. But nor will the souring of his tone during his second official visit, also in 2014, which in some ways presaged the nearly five months of border blockade.
Or take Oli’s first India visit as government head, right after the end of the blockade. During that trip, Oli stood up to the Indian pressure and refused to toe its line. Oli and his left alliance, it can be argued, rode on the anti-blockade popularity wave to secure a thumping victory in subsequent federal and provincial elections. On becoming prime minister for the second time, Oli went to India again, and the confidence he projected in New Delhi, and his treatment of Modi as his equal in every respect, were just as remarkable.
The focus of Modi’s third Nepal visit is on religious places like Janakpur, Pashupatinath and Muktinath. Besides that, his 36-hour Nepal stay will be peppered with meetings with leaders from across the political spectrum. Keenly aware of the inclinations of his core constituencies back home, Modi apparently wants to show them that he is still close to his Hindu roots, which will come in handy during the 2019 Indian general elections. Some view his visit to Muktinath in Mustang on the northern border as an indirect signal to China to keep a safe distance from Nepal.
Whatever the motive for his visit, Nepalis, who have traditionally treated their guests as no less than gods, should continue the tradition. There is no point harping on past Indian injustices or, on India’s part, bemoaning the unreliability of Nepali political actors. Modi seems keen to forget past bitterness and reestablish bilateral ties on a more equal footing. Ditto with PM Oli. That course of action is also in Nepal’s interest. There is really no gainsaying the importance of normalizing relations with India.
Whether one likes PM Oli or not, a Nepali leader has after a long time shown himself to be capable of holding his own against any foreign counterpart. Perhaps Oli has a long-term foreign policy strategy up his sleeve. He deserves some time to prove his diplomatic credentials.
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