Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is arriving in Nepal on Friday for his May 11-12 official visit at the invitation of Nepali Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli. The intent of the visit is said to improve the Indo-Nepal ties and engage with the new government of Nepal formed by the alliance of Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxists Leninists (CPN-UML) and Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre).

Before Modi will visit Kathmandu, he is visiting the Janaki Temple in Janakpur in the southern plains bordering with India, and the Muktinath Temple in Mustang district located at closer to Nepal-Tibet border in the northeast part of the country. Janakpur is the birthplace of Janaki or Sita who married Lord Ram of Ayodhya during the Ramayan period some 10,000 years ago. It is believed that sacred stone shaligrams with different incarnation symbol of Lord Vishnu are available in the area between Muktinath and Kagbeni in Gandaki River.

Though this is PM Modi’s third visit to the himalayan country but it is more significant for various reasons. This is the first instance he sets foot in the enclaves of Janakpur outside outside the bustling city of Kathmandu. He happens to be the first foreign head of the state/government to visit a provincial capital after federalism came into effect. Janakpur is the capital of Province 2, largely dominated by Madhesi population in eight districts, which share the border in Bihar state.

Recognition of federal structure

Since this is the first high-level visit from India following the formation of the new government in Nepal with federalism in effect, PM Modi’s visit to Janakpur, the interim capital of Province 2, is seen as a kind of recognition of federal structure, according to Dipendra Jha, chief attorney for the government of Province 2. Jha, who was actively involved in the preparation of this visit, told The Wire, “PM Modi’s visit to Janakpur will not only strengthen the federalism but it will also help with the provincial government’s priorities for the prosperity and development of the province.”

Janakpur is decorated like a bride to welcome both the Indian PM Modi and Nepali PM Oli, who are visiting there for the first time since they assumed their offices. The posters with the photos of both the prime ministers and the national flags of both countries have been hung at several places in the city, including outside the Janaki temple premises.

“This visit will be instrumental towards the support of federal structure in Nepal,” said Chandrakishore, a prominent journalist based in Birgunj, who is constantly following on the issues of Nepal-India ties and Tarai-Hills sentiments. Nepali PM Oli will accompany Modi’s visit to Janakpur. PM Modi is stopping at three different places — Janaki Temple, the Janakpur Cigarette Factory which is now the Office of Chief Minister and Council of Ministers, and Barahbigha ground — where effective security and grand welcome arrangements have been made, according to Lalbabu Raut, Chief Minister of Province 2.

More than  100,000 people from Province 2 and across India have thronged to Barahbiga ground, the venue of civic reception for Modi. He is also expected to make some special announcement on Indian assistance for infrastructure and development projects in the province, according to the sources involved during the preparation and coordination of the visit.

Emphasis on socio-cultural ties

Modi’s third visit has been arranged in such a way that will give a sense of emphasis on socio-cultural ties. This visit is also a part of recognising the sentiments of the borderland, according to Journalist Chandrakishore. Analysts and well-wishers believe that the emphais on socio-cultural aspect will help both the countries remain their relations intact.

As per the itinerary informed to media, PM Modi is offering a special prayer at the 20th century Janaki Temple. Following the special prayer, he along with PM Oli will inaugurate the Ramayana Circuit and will also flag off the bus service on Janakpur-Ayodhya route. With this, Janakpur will be a part of Ramayana Circuit initiated by government of India.

Political engagement with all sides

“The State visit is in keeping with the tradition of regular high-level exchanges between India and Nepal, and will enable leaders to discuss matters of mutual interest and to strengthen cooperation in all areas of age-old, multi-faceted and expanding partnership between the two countries,” the last week’s statement of the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi reads. As the statement suggests, PM Modi will meet the leaders of all the political parties to discuss the agenda of mutual interests.

Sources claimed that the leaders of Madhesi parties will raise their dissatisfaction with PM Modi, who will raise with the Nepali Prime Minister on addressing the dissenting voices of Madhesis and Tharus for the stability and prosperity in the country.

Announcement on Infrastructure

During the visit, both the prime ministers will lay the foundation stone of Arun-III hydropower project. PM Modi is likely to announce mega projects, including the implementation of rail project between Kathmandu in Nepal and Raxaul in Bihar state of India and other existing connectivity projects, with a view to counter the growing Chinese influence over the infrastructure development projects in Nepal. It is expected that PM Modi’s visit to Nepal will give the final shape of several discussions between both the countries during PM KP Oli’s recent state visit to India, on the infrastructure development and other pertinent issues.

Nepalis divided

However, this visit has led to a tug of war between two sections of the societies – those from Hills and those from Madhes/Terai region. These debates have apparently appeared in social media and opinion pieces and news reports that have been appearing in Nepali media since the announcement of Modi’s visit. Majority of hill populations are disappointed about this visit citing that the 2015/16 border blockade of Madhesis with tacit support of India suffered Nepalis at the time of the promulgation of the constitution. They voiced that Modi should not be welcomed to the country and if he does, he should go for the public apology for the blockade.

On the contrary, larger sections of the Madhesi society, though they still feel unhappy with the lately-changed Indian stance on their agenda, are enthusiastic about welcoming Modi to their land. They have taken pride in hosting the visit of the Indian Prime Minister in their capital, which they had been waiting since 2014. The visit of Janakpur was Modi’s itinerary before his second visit in November 2014. That was the time when the country was writing the constitution and there existed resenting voices on Madhesis on federal demarcation, proportionate inclusion and citizenship among key issues. There was a fear among the major political parties that Modi’s visit that time could embolden their voices. The major political parties, including the then government led by Prime Minister Sushil Koirala did not seem to be happy with that visit. In the midst of the confusion and speculated controversies, India had cancelled the visit.

The desire of PM Modi to visit Janakpur Lumbini and Muktinath among the key religious sites , which he had expressed during his first visit in August 2018, finally comes true with the visit of Janakpur and Muktinath. Many, including Journalist Prashant Jha and Jacob have termed this visit for religious diplomacy to put the Indo-Nepal ties on track.