04 August, 2014


I’m not sure if I caught all of Indian PM Modi’s speech to the Nepal Parliament, but the portion I did was  powerfully articulated, well thought out, and persuasive.  What came across most clearly was the PM’s interest in decreasing poverty not just in Nepal but all across the 7 SAARC nations.

I’d read a great deal about Modi—from Modi’s critics. One criticism was that his much vaunted results about decreasing poverty in Gujarat was hyped up. His poverty figures, said critics, were less than what the Modistas claimed the numbers were. After listening to his speech, it was clear to me that PM Modi has a clear anti-poverty agenda—not just for his own country, but also for the SAARC region as a whole. Whether he can show results is unproven. But clearly he’s putting a remarkable amount of energy and devotion to this project, traveling thousands of miles and meeting people of all persuasions in order to inspire them with this vision. And that, I think, is achievement enough, considering his predecessors.

The sincerity in his voice was unmistakable when he talked about tourism, for example, and how bringing pilgrims to Nepal to visit Pashupatinath would help everyone from the chana-seller to the ricksaw-pullers to the tea-sellers. The mention of the tea-sellers got a bit of a laugh from the Nepali parliamentarians, but it was a friendly, we-are-with-you laugh, the sort no doubt Modi will get all over the subcontinent, because I don’t think there’s anybody in South Asia who is not a tiny bit thrilled with his I-used-to-be-a-tea-seller and now I am a Prime Minister story. It’s a story that South Asians love (engrained in us by Bollywood)—the notion that anybody can, with hard work, pull himself up by his chappal straps to the highest position in his nation. If Modi, surprisingly, got some portion of the Muslim vote, this story probably had a big hand in it.

Modi started off by exhorting the Parliamentarians to do their job—basically, write the Constitution. There was a bit of the grandfatherly touch to his lecture—writing a Constitution is a great endeavor, he said, and you sit here with this great task before you. He then went on to commend the Parliamentarians, mentioned the world’s eyes were upon Nepal, and that this Constitution would show the way to all those warring parties who chose war over peace. The country of Gautam Buddha, he said, would show the way. All of this was very persuasive, I must say, even if had a tiny ring of an elder coaxing recalcitrant children who were refusing to do their homework.

Suitably wowed, the Parliamentarians then listened to Modi talk about herbal medicine. “When Laxman fainted, this is the place where Hanumanji came to get medicine for him,” he said. (I’d always wondered about where exactly Hanuman went, because I sure would like to go there and find that herb myself.) Mr. Modi then mentioned, with that same note of sincerity in his voice, that a project that developed Nepal into a herbal processing and developing nation would help “all of humanity”. This sort of broad, humanistic vision cropped up a couple of times in his speech, enough to make you think his vision extends beyond the usual narrow nationalistic one. I liked this humanistic approach. Helping all of humanity is an ideal that can get me out of bed, no matter how tough the outer conditions of life at any given time.

Modi then got onto water and electricity. This, of course, is a touchy subject with Nepalis. “If we build Pancheswor, this will generate five times more electricity for Nepal than it has at present,” he said. “Perhaps if Bharat helps Nepal to end its darkness now, then Nepal can help Bharat to end its darkness in a few years’ time.” So far, so good.

Then he got onto HIT. Yes, HIT. Highways, I-ways, and transways. Highways, as in roads, I-ways, to connect Nepal to the rest of the world, and transways, to transmit electricity. “We’d like to build transmission lines,” he said. Obviously, transmission lines are important, since without them electricity cannot be transported from one place to another. And this is also a big obstacle for why Nepal is not able to properly use its massive hydro potential. I hoped he meant the Sanskrit “heet”, as in “benefit”, and not “HIT”, as in “we’re gonna get you with this one.”

“We don’t want the electricity for free, of course,” he said. Or rather, joked.

Then he got on to the one billion dollars recently earnmarked for Nepal. “And this money is separate from the one given before,” he said, trying to act cool. “The one before—well, that’s separate.” The Nepalese did give an extra-energetic slap to their desks to this ghosana.

“I think that money is going to be spent by one or two politicians getting health care in Singapore or America,” an elder in my house grumbled, watching this portion on TV. No criticism of the Indians here, only of the Nepali politicians misusing public funds.

On the theme of double meanings, Modi—who so far had been swinging along with his speech, then turns to… Sikkim. Now as anybody knows, mention Sikkim in a room full of daura-suruwal wearing Nepalese, and you’re going to get one reaction—fight-or-flight. Modi approached it in this manner. “And on the theme of organic farming,” he said, “I’d encourage you all to get into it. The organic produce really brings in the dollars.” Everybody was on the organic farming boat. Then: “In our own country Bharat, the state of Sikkim has totally turned organic.” Then the (confusing) clincher. Then he says, rather sneakily and cleverly: “If you want to become like Sikkim, we can help you.”

Eer, Mr. Modi. Excuse us, but we don’t really want to become like Sikkim. Not even for all the organic farming in the world, thank you.

Modi did mention that he wanted Nepal to become even closer—and this is the sort of neighborly hug the Nepalese wonder about, wondering if it’s the camel in the tent. Modi mentioned the bridge over Mahakali would bring Nepal closer to India. This felt like a genuine expression of: “why are we so distant even if we are so close”, and a bridge over Mahakali surely sounds like a good idea, although perhaps the locals of the area would have to be consulted before anybody in Kathmandu gave the go-ahead on that one.

Modi did mention that Nepal was a sovereign nation, and he had no intention in meddling with its internal affairs. He just wanted us to be the best we could be. Which, somehow, also rang true.

All in all, the Nepalese should probably take Modi’s speech for what it was: the speech of a great orator with a great interest in social transformation, reduction of poverty, and neighborly connection, without necessarily forgetting their own interests and boundaries. A strong Nepal would continue to be a strength for India, primarily because Nepal and India have always been allies and always will be. As for the sharing of natural resources, it would have to be done judiciously and with equitable agreements, including into it many clauses for ecological preservation and conservation. Water is a finite resource, and it needs to be managed as a resource that could run out, if over-used or not stewarded with respect. And electricity, while greatly needed in order to lift people out of poverty, must be done with care so that its dams don’t destroy the ecological flow and balance upstream and downstream. It’s not something that couldn’t be done, with great thought and care. I hope for the sake of both countries something along those lines can be worked out. 

Sushma Joshi has a BA in international relations from Brown University. 

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