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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to visit Lumbini on Monday, marking his fifth trip to Nepal since his first election as prime minister in 2014. This, however, is his first Nepal visit since his re-election in 2019.
Some Indian ministers including Kiren Rijju, the minister of law and justice; Gangapuram Kishan Reddy, the minister for culture, tourism and development of the North-Eastern region of India; and Arjun Ram Meghwal, minister of state for culture; and other government officials will accompany Modi to Lumbini, according to sources.
The Indian prime minister, however, will not travel to Kathmandu, as his visit is aimed at offering prayers at the Mayadevi temple in Lumbini on the occasion of Buddha Jayanti.
Nepali Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba reached Bhairahawa on Sunday evening with some ministers. Before attending the functions and ceremonies in Lumbini, Deuba will inaugurate the newly built Gautam Buddha International Airport in Bhairahawa on Monday.
The two sides will also hold talks in Lumbini.
The Indian prime minister’s visit is taking place in the wake of a series of visits to Kathmandu by officials from the United States, the United Kingdom and China, and a visit to India by Deuba just over a month ago.
Observers and analysts say the visit from Delhi may look purely like a religious one, but it does hold strategic significance.
According to Kamal Thapa, a former foreign minister, India appears to be in a bid to have its engagements in Nepal renewed amid ongoing rapid shifts in the geopolitical landscape.
As per the itinerary for the day, after a brief meeting between Nepali foreign minister Narayan Khadka and Modi, Deuba will host a luncheon in honour of the Indian prime minister.
After a delegation-level talks followed by the signing of some agreements and understandings, Modi will attend the 2566th Buddha Jayanti celebrations and address a gathering of people, including Buddhist scholars and monks, from Nepal and India.
Officials said both sides are planning to sign at least five agreements and understandings. India has offered to set up a satellite campus of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Rupandehi and has sent some draft memoranda of understanding for signing between Indian and Nepali universities. The Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu University and Lumbini Buddhist University will sign some agreements on educational cooperation with a number of Indian universities.
On Sunday evening in Lumbini, senior officials from both sides were giving final touches to the drafts of the agreements to be signed on the next day, according to officials.
Deuba is likely to discuss some pending projects like the Pancheshwar Multipurpose Project, an important arm of the Mahakali Treaty signed between Nepal and India in 1996, and West Seti Hydropower Project, a reservoir-type project with a projected capacity of 1,200 megawatts.
“Our regular and pending agenda will be discussed while both sides will pick up from where they had left off during Deuba’s visit to Delhi,” said a senior Nepal government official.
During a recent media briefing in New Delhi, Indian foreign secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra, who took up the post after completing his term as Indian ambassador to Kathmandu, said there would be a follow-up to the discussions that took place in New Delhi between Deuba and Modi.
“[Conversations] would no doubt cover all elements of a bilateral engagement, whether it is development partnership, whether it is the assessment and stocktaking of how connectivity projects are doing, what more can be done to connect the two societies of South Asia, and also aspects relating to hydropower cooperation,” Kwatra said. “I mean, that’s a question which was specifically asked, trade investment is another area, which is very strong in our partnership.”
“The entire domain of development partnership, which covers cooperation in many areas, whether it is health, whether it is education, whether it is institution building, so I have a feeling that the conversation between the two leaders will have a comprehensive agenda, will cover the entire scope of our discussions… Of course that would include connectivity,” added Kwatra.
In a statement ahead of his day-long Nepal visit, Modi on Sunday said he is looking forward to meeting Deuba again after productive discussions during his visit to India last month.
“We will continue to build on our shared understanding to expand cooperation in multiple areas, including in hydropower, development and connectivity,” said Modi.
Deuba visited India on April 1-3.
“Our ties with Nepal are unparalleled. The civilisational and people-to-people contacts between India and Nepal form the enduring edifice of our close relationship,” said Modi. “My visit is intended to celebrate and further deepen these time-honoured linkages that have been fostered through centuries and recorded in our long history of intermingling.”
On arrival, Modi along with Deuba, will visit the Mayadevi temple and attend a special prayer. Modi will also be lighting a butter lamp in front of the Ashoka Pillar, and water the Bodhi tree, gifted by Modi during his 2014 Nepal visit. After Bhoomi Poojan and laying the foundation stone for the India International Centre for Buddhist Culture and Heritage, being built at the initiative of the International Buddhist Confederation, New Delhi, Modi will hold bilateral engagements.
Although Nepal’s second international airport, the Gautam Buddha International Airport, will officially open on Monday, Modi will not be landing at the new airport, which is 18 km from Lumbini, and instead fly directly to Lumbini by a helicopter. Some experts have called Nepal’s inability to make arrangements for Modi to land at the new airport a diplomatic failure. Modi’s landing at the new airport, which is in need of global marketing, would have drawn international attention.
After visiting Nepal in 2014, Modi had expressed his desire to visit Lumbini. In the past, Modi has offered prayers at Pashupatinath in Kathmandu, Janaki Temple in Janakpur and Muktinath in Mustang.
Chandra Dev Bhatta, an observer of international affairs, says the visit will help consolidate the common heritage of Nepal and India, make Nepal’s cultural soft power stronger, and also help Nepal to project Lumbini in a better way.
Some experts and observers say the timing of Modi’s visit to Lumbini is interesting. Although Modi during his visit to Nepal in 2014 had announced that he would visit Pashupatinath, Muktinath, Janakpur and Lumbini. He visited the first three shrines between 2014 and 2018, but Lumbini was due.
Modi’s Lumbini visit will dispel the ‘erroneous notion’ in some sections of Indian society and media about Buddha’s birthplace, which is Nepal, said Thapa, the former foreign minister.
“Certainly the meeting between two prime ministers always remains important. Also, Modi’s direct visit to Lumbini from India has opened doors for other foreign dignitaries to kick start their Nepal trips from outside the Capital. If Modi had landed at the second international airport on the very day of its inauguration, it would have definitely sent a positive message around the world. But we failed to make that happen,” said Thapa.
Some diplomats, meanwhile, observe that the visit should open the vistas of new cooperation and partnership between two sides and erase irritants in relations.
“We are linked by culture, civilisation, and religion, but that is only one dimension of our ties,” said Nilamber Acharya, former Nepali ambassador to India, adding, “This visit should open more dimensions to bilateral relations.”
Anil Giri is a reporter covering diplomacy, international relations and national politics for The Kathmandu Post. Giri has been working as a journalist for a decade-and-a-half, contributing to numerous national and international media outlets.
This article was originally published on the Kathmandu Post.