Cultural diplomacy, religious tourism and China’s active interest in the region among factors why Modi wants to visit the Buddhist pilgrimage site.
New Delhi: As Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarks on a two-day trip to Nepal Thursday — his fourth visit to the neighbouring country in as many years — his long-pending trip to Buddhist pilgrimage site Lumbini continues to elude him.
During his last trip to the Himalayan nation in May, Modi had promised that he would visit the site next time. Prior to that, he could not visit Lumbini during his two trips to Nepal in 2014.
Modi is scheduled to arrive in Kathmandu early Thursday for the BIMSTEC summit and return to Delhi late Friday. According to top sources in the government, authorities on both sides did consider a visit to Lumbini this time but the PM’s tight schedule made it difficult to accommodate it.
Besides the PM’s emphasis on cultural diplomacy and using Buddhism to deepen Indo-Nepal ties, another motivation for Modi to visit Lumbini is China’s active interest in the region.
A Chinese organisation had, a few years ago, proposed adopting the broader Lumbini area and developing it into a site with world-class infrastructure. China has also begun taking an interest in organising Buddhism conferences with Lumbini as the centre. The contract to develop Lumbini international airport was also awarded to a Chinese contractor.
During his last trip to the country in May this year, when he visited Janakpur and the famous Janaki temple, as well as Muktinath, the PM had said he would “make sure” to visit Lumbini the next time he came to Nepal.
After coming to power in May 2014, Nepal was one of the first foreign trips of the PM when he visited it in August for bilateral talks. It was during that trip that he expressed his desire to visit Muktinath, Janakpur and Lumbini. However, his November 2014 visit to the country for the SAARC summit turned out to be equally disappointing on this front, with authorities in Nepal citing logistical and security reasons for the inability to arrange Modi’s visit to the three religious sites.
“When I visited Nepal last time, I had expressed desire to visit Janakpur, Lumbini and Muktinath. I wanted to visit these places by road to understand the difficulties faced by the people in doing so. But due to time constraint I could not visit these places,” Modi had said, adding he would visit all three during his subsequent trips.
Rough patch in Indo-Nepal ties
What followed was a period of uneasy Nepal-India relations, with scars of the turbulent period remaining. In 2015, after the Nepali constitution was promulgated, Madhesis (people of the Tarai region that borders India) organised a six-month long mass movement claiming that the statute eroded their political representation.
India took a strong position backing Madhesi demands and advocated that the political discontent be addressed. Many in Nepal believe India even tacitly enabled a border blockade, disrupting essential supplies. All of this generated resentment in Kathmandu valley and the hills, causing a strain between New Delhi and the then Nepal government led by K.P. Oli.
However, India subsequently sidestepped the issue of Madhesi rights in Nepal’s constitutional scheme and reverted its diplomatic focus on maintaining amicable relations with Kathmandu, particularly as the fear of China’s growing imprint in Nepal loomed large.
When K.P. Oli, perceived to be close to China, came back as PM with a thumping mandate, he chose to make India the destination of his first state visit, leading to a thaw in relations between the two countries. It was during this visit that Oli extended a visit to Modi, and the latter made his third visit to the country in May this year — the first since the blockade.
However, a Lumbini visit eluded the PM even during this May trip, while he was able to visit the other two destinations — Janakpur and Muktinath. Modi, who flagged off a Janakpur-Ayodhya bus service, then promised to make a trip to Lumbini in his next Nepal halt.
But with the schedule for Thursday–Friday not permitting it, and this likely to be his last trip to Nepal before the Lok Sabha polls next year, it seems unlikely Modi will be able to fulfill his promise of a Lumbini visit in this term as PM.
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