The 2566th birthday celebration of Lord Buddha this year was special for Nepal in many ways. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made it special. Nepali Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba made it special in his own way.
Together, Modi and Deuba offered prayers at the Maya Devi temple, the sacred site of Lumbini. He sat together with Deuba, and offered prayers, joining hands in a true Buddhist spirit.
What made the day even more important and special was the inauguration of the Gautam Buddha International Airport.
When Airbus 320 of Jazeera Airways landed at the Gautam Buddha International Airport, it created a promising spectacle for the country which so far has been handling its foreign flights through the only one international airport—Tribhuvan International Airport. When the Nepal Airlines plane also landed at the new airport, Nepal gave a message loud and clear: People from around the world can take a direct flight to Lumbini, the Buddha’s birthplace, a sacred site for the Buddhists and the Hindus alike.
When Prime Minister Deuba inaugurated the airport and the Tourism minister announced that the airport would be operational round the clock, it further reinforced the message that Nepal is open to Buddhist pilgrims and visitors from around the world and that Nepal is more open to tourism than ever before.
Lumbini, it seems, will no longer be the same place again.
Prime Minister Modi coming to Lumbini was a special event without a doubt. India is home to an 8.4 million Buddhist population. Besides, PM Modi coming to Lumbini itself becomes a tourism promotion event for Lumbini and Nepal. Religious and cultural ties create a solid bedrock of Nepal-India relations. Navita Srikant,a New-Delhi based commentator who closely follows Nepal-India relations, summarized this well in India Narrative on May 16: “Shared religious and cultural ties feed exponential economic growth. The present ruling party BJP under the leadership of PM Modi stands a unique chance to grow bilateral relations of India-Nepal holistically.”
Modi’s address to the Buddha Jayanti celebrations was truly reflective of his faith in Nepal-India relations and deep cultural-religious ties. In a way, his address was reminiscent of his 2014 speech at Nepal’s Constituent Assembly.
What India gained
A clever player and a champion of Hindutva politics, Modi must have won the hearts of those who believe in the politics of religion in India. Modi’s BJP, which is an ardent promoter of Hindutva, has long been criticized in India for being too intolerant of minorities and Dalits.
Most notable of all the MoUs and agreements signed with Nepal during his Lumbini trip is the MoU between the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) and Lumbini Buddhist University on the establishment of Dr Ambedkar Chair for Buddhist Studies. The MoUs with Tribhuvan University and Kathmandu University are also focused on enhancing cultural diplomacy. With the proposal of Dr Ambedkar Chair for Buddhist Studies, Modi has captured the sentiments of a religious minority (Buddhists) and Dalits whose conversion to Buddhism is a growing trend in India.
Modi has given a message to Buddhists and Dalits in India: Look I care as much about you as about the Hindus.
This message should be seen in the context of the Modi government becoming a subject of criticism for suppressing and persecuting the Dalits.
Besides, Baba Ambedkar, the father of the constitution of modern India, strikes a chord with millions of Indian people. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism in 1956 along with 3,65,000 of his Dalit followers. For him, Buddhism was the most modern and rational religion.
Apart from wooing the Buddhist and Dalit constituency in India (I don’t want to limit Modi’s Lumbini trip to this interpretation but Indian press has highlighted this aspect), Modi has sent a message that his commitment to India’s ‘Neighborhood First’ policy vis-à-vis Nepal remains unchanged.
Disappointment for Nepal
The first source of disappointment for Nepal and Nepalis who watched Modi and Deuba offering prayers in Lumbini was Nepali PM himself. Nepali PM looked completely distracted, disinterested and at times even discourteous. While the Indian PM was participating in the prayer functions with unparalleled devotion and dedication, Nepali PM displayed awkward postures and gestures–drooling, picking eyes, yawning now and then, and dozing off now and then. It could be because of his age—Deuba is in his mid-70s—or his poor physical health but he should have been able to maintain calm composure at least for a few minutes while he was beside his guest, his invitee.
People in Nepal, perhaps in India too, do not expect Deuba to raise what truly are the thorny issues between India and Nepal–the Kalapani-Lipulekh-Limpiyadhura boundary issue, the death of Jaya Singh Dhami and the non-acceptance of the EPG report by India–to mention a few.
These issues could have been deliberately removed from the agenda of the meeting between the heads of government of Nepal and India in Lumbini.
If Modi had landed at Lumbini airport, this would send a signal that India has provided additional air entry routes to Nepal. It would have drawn the attention of the world.
But Nepali people had expected one thing that could build a better image of India in Nepal. There was an expectation that there would be an action, an announcement or agreement exchanged if necessary, to make the Gautam Buddha International Airport commercially viable for Nepal and those who travel to Lumbini by plane.
According to Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Deuba requested his Indian counterpart to provide additional air entry routes from Mahendranagar, Nepalgunj and Janakpur for the commercial operation of the Gautam Buddha International Airport. And the Indian PM “assured that authorities concerned of India would take up the matters raised by the Prime Minister Deuba.” But the official document of India is silent about the matter. Modi was silent about this matter during his address in Lumbini.
If Modi had landed at Lumbini airport, this would send an extremely meaningful message. It would have drawn the attention of the world.
The China factor was cited as one of the reasons by Indian media behind Modi skipping Lumbini airport. If the Indian PM indeed fell for this faulty narrative, it is another cause of disappointment for Nepal.
For one, this reflects India’s obsession with China in Nepal. Second, that the Gautam Buddha International airport was built by China is factually wrong. The airport was not funded by China but by Asian Development Bank. And its construction contract was awarded to the Chinese Company through a competitive bidding process.
If the Indian side is to skip the infrastructures built by Chinese contractors or under Chinese assistance in Nepal they would have to avoid using the Kathmandu ring road, Araniko highway, Pokhara international airport, Rasuwagadhi road, and so on. How will that be possible? By the same logic, if the Chinese side is to avoid using the infrastructures built by or under Indian assistance in Nepal, they would have to avoid using a number of them.
India-China rivalry is out there in the open and we don’t know how long it will last. But the diplomacy of exclusion is the last thing Nepal would like to see in its relations with any friendly countries or the neighbor–whether China, India or the US.
Deuba may not have shared any of these ‘uncomfortable facts’ with Modi on May 16. Rhetoric alone does not sustain the relations between the two countries. Spirit of goodwill for each other, true understanding of each other’s conditions, needs and compulsions help a lot.
Photos: Indian Embassy’s Twitter handle