India turns to social-cultural ties as China steps up role in Nepal

Published On: November 26, 2017 05:30 AM NPT By: Kosh Raj Koirala  | @KoshRKoirala

KATHMANDU, Nov 26: As China tries to deepen its influence  in Nepal through the overarching framework of  its One Belt One Road (OBOR) project, India is of late responding through a renewed focus on the socio-cultural aspects of its age-old relations with the new republic.

Along with the ongoing partnership that mainly includes construction of physical and social infrastructure such as airports, highways, hospitals and educational institutions, India has placed renewed focus on promoting  people-to-people relations through cultural ties and improved connectivity between the two countries, especially since the Narendra Modi government came to power.

While work is  underway to develop various cross-border railway links including Jayanagar-Bardibas and Jogbani-Biratnagar, India is also promoting a Ramayan Circuit that seeks to link Janakpur and Ayodhya and a Buddhist Circuit between Lumbini in Nepal and Bodhgaya in India. Only a few weeks ago, Indian ambassador to Nepal Manjeev Singh Puri  reached  Janakpur to attend a function  promoting the Ramayan Circuit and Mithila-Awadh relations. 

During the first visit  to Nepal by Indian Prime Minister Modi, Nepal and India  agreed to develop twin-city relations between Janakpur and Ayodhya, Kathmandu and Banaras and Lumbini and Bodhgaya. Although these initiatives could not make much headway after bilateral relations hit a new low following the promulgation of Nepal's new constitution and the subsequent Indian economic embargo in late 2015, government officials in Nepal said the two governments are currently working to develop joint tourism packages and promote the idea of tourist circuits that connect important religious sites. 

Even as the going  has not been as smooth as expected, Modi during his visit here  jointly inaugurated with then prime minister Sushil Koirala a passenger bus services connecting Kathmandu and New Delhi . The Modi government later also included Nepal under its Leave Travel Concession arrangement, which provides nearly five million Indian central government employees  leave and ticket reimbursement if they chose to travel to Nepal. 

Along with  efforts to promote religious tourism between the two countries, renewed priority is being given in India's bilateral relations with Nepal in recent years to the organizing of cultural festivals, construction of library buildings, renovation and restoration of cultural and historical sites and strengthening cross-border connectivity to facilitate the  movement of people. 

India has also placed priority on developing three more cross-border railway links with Nepal, in addition to the Jayanagar-Janakpur-Bardibas and Jogbani-Biratnagar  links.
Foreign affairs experts in Kathmandu agree that New Delhi has lately given importance to the socio-cultural aspects of bilateral relations and to strengthening people-to-people ties -- something India took for granted for many years. “A majority of the people  in both India and Nepal being of the Hindu faith,  there is bound to be religious and cultural affiliations.

Priority has been given to this by the Modi government ever since it came to power,” said Nishchal Nath Pandey, director of the Center for South Asian Studies.

India's focus on strengthening the socio-cultural aspect of  bilateral relations with Nepal comes amid a section of individuals within the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) demanding that Modi respond to China's OBOR with a One Culture, One Region (OCUR) plan. They argue that India should launch the OCOR  for  Eurasian countries as cultural and religious bonds serve as soft power  for thwarting what they describe as Chinese ambitions to dominate India. 

Experts argue that India's perceived change of focus towards the socio-cultural  is also closely related to the rise of Yogi Adityanath as chief minister of the bordering Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. “We must also not forget that the current chief minister of Uttar Pradesh has old ties with Nepal,” Pandey said, adding that Nepal should  benefit from  historical and cultural relations. 

Tourism entrepreneurs say there is a prospect of drawing millions of Indian tourists to Nepal if the  Ramayan and Buddhist circuits  materialize. 

Indian ambassador  Puri said the focus of India in Nepal in recent years has been on hydropower and  improvement  of connectivity through integrated check posts, railways links, terai roads, an optical fibre network, transmission lines and a petroleum pipeline. “The links between our two peoples at the societal, religious and cultural levels embody our unique relations,” he said.

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