Modi's propaganda machine, never far behind Goebbels', swung into action when Modi visited Nepal in August 2014, proclaiming that Modi had visited neighbouring Nepal within weeks of becoming PM whereas Dr. Manmohan Singh had failed in ten years to go to Nepal even once.
Saner voices tried to explain that this was because Nepal was engaged in a delicate Constitution-building exercise and an Indian PM wandering the hills and plains of its tiny neighbour would be misunderstood and mischievously portrayed as India seeking to interfere in that country's tangled, seven-year-long Constitution-making process. But saner voices are always drowned out in the cacophony of crowing hype. And the fact that little Nepalese children (the cutest in the world) waved back at Modi as the 56-inch giant strolled barrel-chested down their roads was played up as a huge diplomatic success.
The truth took another three months to hit home. On his way to Kathmandu for the SAARC summit in November 2014, Modi sought to make a stop-over at Janakpur in the Madhesi plains to address a huge public gathering there as if he were on Indian, not Nepali, soil. The principal Constitutional gridlock was over the plains people seeking proportional representation in the proposed Nepal parliament and the hill people's demand for equitable not equal representation. Modi, by stopping-over and speaking at Janakpur, was trying to tilt the balance in favour of the Madhesis. A more blatant interference in Nepal's internal affairs could not be imagined. The Nepalese shrewdly saw through the game. And refused Modi permission to hold a public meeting in Janakpur. This was covered up in polite noises about security issues - but was an unambiguous signal from the self-respecting and sovereign Nepalese that while friendly advice might be welcomed, there could be no stepping on sensitive, sovereign corns.
Modi passed up Janakpur but remained determined to remain the final arbiter in Nepal's constitutional processes. Why this unwarranted interest in Nepal's internal affairs? Two reasons - one, ideological; two, electoral.
The ideological dimension is clear. Nepal, with a Hindu majority, was under the erstwhile monarchy the only self-proclaimed Hindu state in the world - a magnet for the RSS and the BJP whose sole long-term objective is to make India a Hindu raj. Not only has the new Nepal constitution rejected the concept of a sectarian state, it has proclaimed itself "secular" in precisely the same way as India has done. They have thwarted Modi's malevolent plans. The Sangh Parivar have definitively lost their lodestar. Hence, Modi's pique.
The second reason is dirty politics. With Madhes running along the entire border with northern Bihar, Modi wants to score political points to push his party over the edge in the crucial coming Bihar election. He believes a pro-Madhesi posture will resonate with the Biharis who have strong ethnic ties with the Terai. Playing such a communal card with a friendly neighbour is just not on. One cannot play with the sovereignty of another country to gain cheap points in a domestic electoral contest.
The end result is that the same Modi who was hailed a year ago as Nepal's best friend is now reviled as an interfering megalomaniac. One of Nepal's most articulate commentators, Kanak Mani Dixit (incidentally, one of India's best friends in a country that is not conspicuous for friends of India) has, in an article inThe Hindu, described New Delhi's recent actions as "escalating interventionism, with the gloves off", marked by "an itch to micromanage Nepal", even granting "the external intelligence agency carte blanche to operate overtly." Underlining India's transgression of two principal tenets of the Panchsheel, Dixit indicts India for violating the cardinal principles of "mutual respect for sovereignty and non-interference".
Modi has thus done our vital interests in Nepal irreversible damage, confirming everything the worst anti-Indian baiters in that country have maintained for years. We have vital security interests in Nepal. China is Nepal's neighbour on the other side of the Himalayas. In the course of the last few days, Modi has inflicted more harm to India's standing in Nepal vis-a-vis China than all our past mistakes put together. While Modi's India has insulted the sovereign, secular Republic of Nepal by merely "noting", not "welcoming" its new Constitution, while subtly snubbing Nepal's Constituent Assembly by calling it "a" Constitution, not "the" Constitution, and conveying - none too subtly - India's "concern" at continuing violence in the plains, China has upstaged us by declaring that "as a friendly neighbor, Chinese side notes with pleasure that Nepal's Constituent Assembly has endorsed the new Constitution." In one fell blow, the Chinese have ingratiated themselves with the Constitutionally-authorized establishment in Nepal, while India has self-certified itself as a regional bully. The mess Modi has made of our relations with Islamic Pakistan has now been replicated with Hindu (albeit secular) Nepal. Alienating the Nepalese, who are truly the 'pasban' of our northern borders, is the silliest self-goal we could score.
Another influential Nepalese public intellectual, Ameet Dhakal, has crucified Foreign Secretary Jaishankar's 12-hour journey to Nepal on the very eve of the formal proclamation of the Constitution, after it had been passed almost unanimously by the Constitutional Assembly. Jaishankar travelled not as Foreign Secretary but as the Prime Minister's special envoy. The purpose of the visit was to reiterate Modi's warning to the Nepalese that they should desist from proclaiming their Constitution until seven major amendments prosed by India were accepted without demur by sovereign Nepal. This was accompanied by the none-too-subtle threat that the agitation in the Terai would be used to blockade Nepal and cut off her supplies of essential civil supplies. No wonder Dhakal was left saying of Jaishankar: "He didn't have a message; he only had a threat." He goes onto condemn the special envoy's "brute way" of "delivery... making no pretense of courtesy and decorum" adding, "his stiff body language and the harsh tone matched the arrogance of British Viceroy, Lord Curzon". This was not, emphatically NOT, Jaishankar's personal doing; he was merely carrying out his boss' instructions. It has led, says Dhakal, to "rage" in Kathmandu.
All this is not only self-defeating, it is so unnecessary. True, there are aspects of the new Constitution that may need further thinking. But the Constitution itself makes ample provision for this by allowing another two years for the Nepalese Parliament to continue functioning simultaneously as a Constituent Assembly. To sort out the problems being raised in the Terai (despite 105 of 116 Terai representatives having voted for the Constitution), these can always be resolved by amending the Constitution (remember, we in India have amended our Constitution more than 120 times!), especially as on the floor of the House, and in writing, the leaders have committed themselves to continuing discussions and negotiations with the representatives of the plains' people, both inside and outside the Constituent Assembly. Why not leave it to the Nepalese to sort out their outstanding problems? Who are we to thrust our views down their throats, especially in the face of Maoist leader, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ('Prachanda')'s clear statement: "Any act from anywhere that amounts to undermining our sovereignty is not acceptable to the Nepalese". It would certainly be unacceptable to any Indian.
Instead of partisan (indeed, let's face it, racial) bickering with the Nepalese, Modi needs to recognize that there are not just two or three communities in Nepal with ethnic ties to India, such as the Madhesis, Tharus, Janjatis and Muslims: Nepal is trying to strike a just balance between 125 identified communities stretching from remote, sparsely habited mountain outposts to the teeming plains. It is doing so through a combination of 240 first-past-the-post directly elected seats and 335 proportionately elected seats; special provisions for ethnically cohesive provinces for the plains' people; 33 percent reservations for women; and other such progressive provisions that India ought to be applauding, not sulking over.
Alas, good grace is not one of Modi's virtues. The best the rest of us could do is to apologize to the Nepalese for the atrocious behaviour of our establishment and wish them all the best for a stable future. Otherwise, Nepal, like Pakistan and Sri Lanka, will keep meandering for a Constitution with which it can live.
(Mani Shankar Aiyar is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha.)
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