Symbolism and beyond: On PM Modi’s visit to Lumbini

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Lumbini served a useful but limited purpose

May 18, 2022 12:18 am | Updated 11:13 am IST

India’s current regime has a penchant for symbolism and optics, a tendency that becomes more pronounced when the symbolism is religious. So it was not a surprise that Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a short visit to Lumbini in Nepal on Buddha Jayanti. Lumbini, in Buddhist tradition, is the birthplace of Gautama Buddha and Mr. Modi along with his Nepali counterpart laid the foundation stone for the India International Centre for Buddhist Culture and Heritage in the Lumbini Monastic Zone. The Centre will play a role in challenging the preponderance of the Chinese sponsorship and patronage of the Buddhist festivals and institutions in the area. It could also be a harbinger of a focused development of the area into a tourist and cultural hub for pilgrims and other visitors. To that end, the PM’s visit would have been welcomed by his Nepali counterpart. With the PM also unequivocally asserting that Lumbini was the birthplace of Gautama Buddha, who was born as Siddhartha, this should put to rest a needless irritant in the India-Nepal relations, with some hyper-nationalist Nepalis claiming that the Indian government had a different belief on the Buddha’s origins. The visit also coincided with the signing of a few MoUs, the most prominent being the development and implementation of the Arun-4 hydropower project. The PM’s visit followed his counterpart Sher Bahadur Deuba’s trip to India in April, which thawed relations after a series of controversial steps (during the tenure of Mr. Deuba’s predecessor, K.P. Oli) on the Kalapani dispute.

Mr. Modi’s speech in Lumbini sought to highlight the strong cultural ties between the two countries, which already share a special relationship, cemented by the Treaty of Peace and Friendship signed in 1950. There are several irritants that have developed, straining this relationship, and for now there seems to be a concerted attempt by both regimes to return to bonhomie, with the Indian government seeking to utilise “religious diplomacy” as a means to emphasise the special relationship. But there have been significant changes in Nepal’s political-economy, in particular a substantial reduction in the Nepali youths’ dependence on the Indian economy as compared to the past. Beyond a soft power emphasis on cultural ties, India-Nepal relations need to graduate to a more meaningful partnership on economic and geopolitical issues, with the Indian government continuing to retain a substantial role in partnering the Nepali regime in development projects. The challenge is to utilise the return of bonhomie in ties to refocus on work related to infrastructure development in Nepal, which includes hydropower projects, transportation and connectivity, and which could benefit the citizens of the adjoining States in India as well. Symbolism, after all, is useful only to a certain extent.

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