Straight-talking and frank assessment may be the norm in the boardroom but one has to take refuge in flattery during public-speaking. More so, if you’re a visiting prime minister addressing the people of a neighboring country irritated by your country’s perceived patronizing attitude.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who rode on his PR machinery and promises of development and prosperity to turn what appeared likely to be a close victory into a landslide sweep, is a master of the trade.
Having created the groundwork for his humane image with revelation of adoption of Jeet Bahadur a day earlier, he went further by getting off his car to shake hands with the people standing by the side of road at New Baneshwar before entering the International Convention Center to address the parliament.
He bowled a googly right at the beginning of his address by starting his charm offensive in the Nepali language to the embarrassment of many Nepali leaders who look like they feel as if speaking the lingua franca is sacrilege.
He seemed intent on playing to the gallery and stated, again and again and again, that Lord Buddha was born in Nepal to placate the jingoists irked by casual claims in India that Lord Buddha was born there.
He carried on to stress on the inseparable cultural and political ties and even mentioned how the landslide blockage of Bhotekoshi River on Saturday will have ramifications in the state of Bihar in India.
He reminded how India has not won a single war without martyrdom of Nepalis serving in the Indian Army and praised the bravery of the Gorkhas, attributing an Indian general saying that anyone who claims fearlessness of death in a war must be a liar or a Gorkhali.
He looked well-briefed about the perceived misgivings about India in Nepal and tried to address each of them.
India, he said, wants to buy Nepali electricity and does not wish to take it for free. He stressed Nepal is a sovereign state, ironically to a thunderous applause from the Nepali parliamentarians, and assured that India does not wish to direct Nepal.
The fact that he mentioned the sovereignty of Nepal in his speech shows a realization on the part of the Indian government that it may have crossed the line in trying to ‘micro-manage’ Nepal and, hopefully, promises that India will deal with Nepal on equal terms as a neighbour deserves instead of interfering in internal matters of Nepal as a patronizing big brother.
He praised the Maoists, without naming them, for choosing Buddha over war in what may well have been a double entendre rebuking them for not realizing the truth earlier.
He also put pressure on political leaders to deliver the constitution stating that the whole world is watching Nepal, and the lawmakers, closely. He spurred on the leaders to provide an example by delivering the best constitution in the world after ruins of a war drawing an analogy with Emperor Ashoka who went in search of peace after winning a bloody war.
The royalists hoping for a return to a Hindu Kingdom after the election of Modi, who started as a full-time Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) volunteer, were probably the only ones left broken-hearted as Modi toed the official line of inclusive democratic federal republic for Nepal. Accused of being a communalist back in India, he did not use the word secularism in the address though he said the constitution should be such a bouquet in which everyone should feel the fragrance of one's flower to hint at secularism.
He seemed determined to woo the Nepali people but sounded condescending at times due to his over-enthusiasm.
His oratory skills have made him the man that he is today but there is also a downside to being an emotional orator. His reference to an Indian saying ‘water and youthfulness of hills are of no use to the hills’ was one such instance.
He may have later gone on to add that the saying can no longer be true, and India intends to falsify it, but mentioning it was totally unnecessary.
For, that reminded how the Indian establishment has historically staked its claim over Nepal’s water resources. He may have referred to the saying in a light-hearted manner but where he succeeded by telling how he is happy when chaiwallahs prosper, in an apparent reference to his own background of selling tea, his Paani-Jawani reference had an opposite impact.
It reminded how he created uproar a year ago over the ‘puppy’ remark about the deadly communal riots in the state of Gujarat in 2002 with him as the chief minister.
When asked whether he regretted the violence by Reuters, he had said someone sitting behind in the passenger seat of a car will also feel sad even if a puppy comes under the wheel. Only he can say whether the gaffes were accidental or intentional slights but those with anti-Indian feelings here in Nepal will claim it is the latter.
Having launched his election campaign with the acronym ‘NaMo’, he delivered another ‘HIT’ today expressing India’s commitment to help Nepal build its highways, information technology and transmission lines. He referred to the agreement on forming an authority on Pancheshwar, a contentious issue in Nepal, and stated that building a bridge over the Mahakali River will literally bring the two countries closer. He promised a concessional line of credit of approximately a billion US dollars, and assistance and cooperation in almost every sector.
He pointed at the huge potential for adventure tourism in Nepal and also talked about developing Nepal as a destination for religious tourism referring to Pashupatinath temple and the birth-place of Lord Buddha - Lumbini.
He also promised pipelines for easy supply of petroleum products to Nepal and talked about manufacturing medicine from herbs in the mountainous region reminding how Monkey God Hanuman had flown to Nepal to take medicines to revive a comatose Laxman.
He talked about huge potential for fetching dollars through organic farming citing example of Sikkim that he claimed has become an organic state. His Sikkim analogy was another uncomfortable part of the speech, considering the paranoia among fear mongers about the Sikkimization of Nepal.
He sold big dreams to Nepalis just like he had wooed the Indian electorate recently. But there is a popular refrain in Nepal that India only promises while China delivers, and India under him must deliver to change that perception.
He definitely has made a good start by winning the hearts of the people through his address, having prioritized the Nepal visit, even if just for pilgrimage, to break the 17-year gap in visit of an Indian prime minister. They don’t say ‘Well begun is half done’ for nothing.
Dhakal is the online editor with Karobar Economic Daily. The views expressed herein are solely the author’s. Follow him on Twitter: @premdhakal