It is rare for the prime minister and the Opposition leader of a big country to visit a smaller neighbour on the same day. Yet, late in August, Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi found themselves in the same city in Nepal, although for entirely different reasons.
The Indian prime minister was wrapping up his two-day visit to Nepal, where he attended the fourth summit of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, or Bimstec. Before returning home on August 31, Modi prayed at Kathmandu’s Pashupatinath, one of the holiest shrines for Hindus. It was his third trip to the 5th century temple since taking power in 2014.
The Congress president had arrived in Kathmandu that afternoon on his way to Kailash Mansarovar. Gandhi had vowed to undertake a pilgrimage to the holy mountain in Tibet after the aircraft flying him to Karnataka for the Assembly election campaign in April suffered a near miss, developing “technical snags” and plunging hundreds of feet. Gandhi wanted to visit what Hindus believe is the abode of the god Shiva to thank the deity for escaping unharmed.
A week later, former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda visited with his family. He prayed at Pashupatinath temple on August 7 and reportedly conferred with Ganesh Bhat, the head priest who, in keeping with an old tradition, was brought from Gowda’s home state of Karnataka.
While all three leaders professed to have visited the city to show devotion to Shiva, their much publicised tours appeared to be equally aimed at wooing Hindu voters ahead of India’s parliamentary election next year. There is, after all, a long tradition of Indian politicians counting on Nepal’s Hindu deities to shore up support back home, but Modi is perhaps the master of the art of mixing religion with politics. Each of his four visits to Nepal as prime minister has demonstrated as much. In May, he visited Janakpurdham, considered the birthplace of Sita, Muktinath temple in Mustang, and Pashupatinath. It was no coincidence that Modi reached Pashupatinath the very day Karnataka went to polls: he was seemingly trying to influence Hindu voters.
One unintended consequence of Indian leaders’ frequent forays into Nepal to seek blessings of deities has been a boost to religious tourism. Though Indians have long comprised the largest share of tourists to Nepal, the endorsement of the country’s pilgrimage sites by Modi and other leaders has helped increase the numbers. The sleepy southeastern town of Janakpur, for example, saw a substantial growth in the number of Indian tourists after Modi’s visit. Deepak Raj Joshi, head of the Nepal Tourism Board, was quoted by the Republica newspaper as saying that the number had increased by 20%. The Nepal Tourism Board is seeking to cash in on this trend, launching a campaign called “Garmi Se Behal, Chalo Nepal” in major Indian cities this year to attract tourists wanting to avoid the Indian summer.
It has helped that in recent years, Nepal has served as a gateway to Kailash Mansarovar. In the last six months alone, more than 6,000 Indian pilgrims have traveled from Nepalganj in western Nepal to Humla, where they take a helicopter to the Tibetan border near the site of the pilgrimage.
Nepal has two other routes for pilgrims to Mount Kailash – Keyrung, which is northwest of Kathmandu, and Tatopani in the east. Tatopani, however, was damaged in the 2015 earthquake while Keyrung is prone to landslides triggered by monsoon rains.
The increased use of the Nepalganj-Humla route over the last two years has boosted the economy of the Karnali region, one of Nepal’s poorest. But the high-altitude path is perilous: over a dozen Indian pilgrims have died this year alone.
High-profile visits by Indian politicians to Nepal’s religious sites, however, have not always been without controversy. In 1988, during Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s state visit to Nepal, his wife Sonia Gandhi was denied entry into Pashupatinath because non-Hindus are barred from the temple’s inner sanctum. This led to tensions between the Indian government and Nepal’s monarchy and the bilateral relationship took years to normalise.
Mostly, though, it has been a win-win situation, particularly in recent years: while Indian politicians get to showcase their “Hindu credentials” to voters back home by visiting Nepal’s shrines, Nepal gets revenue from tourism – and, of course, something to talk about. Nepal can only hope that Indian leaders continue visiting.