INTERVIEW

Left alliance govt will neither be pro-China, pro-India; it will be pro-Nepal

Interview Rajan Bhattarai

Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Kathmandu last week comes at a time when the left alliance of the CPN-UML and the CPN (Maoist Centre) is set to form a new government.

By all accounts,  Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent Swaraj as his special envoy to Kathmandu on a political mission to mend  frayed ties with CPN-UML Chairman KP Sharma Oli, who is tipped to be the next prime minister.

Mukul Humagain and Anil Giri met with Rajan Bhattarai, a UML leader, member of Nepal-India Eminent Persons Group (EPG) and  former Foreign Policy Advisor to then Prime Minister Oli to discuss Swaraj’s recent visit, India’s stance towards the new left alliance government, the need for balanced relations between Nepal’s two giant neighbours China and India, and the future of foreign relations under the Oli administration. 

What was discussed in the meeting held between Swaraj and prime minister-in-waiting Oli, and top UML leaders and officials from India on Thursday?
Prior to this visit, the Indian state had congratulated us on the successful completion of local, provincial and federal elections over the telephone. But they wished to convey their support in person as well. Swaraj conveyed to us a message from Indian PM Modi that India is prepared to work with the new government that has been formed as a result of the elections, and that both nations should work together in the days to come to ensure mutual development and prosperity. Swaraj also made it clear that India is ready to extend its support to Nepal to help in realising political stability. That was the main agenda behind this visit. 

Was Swaraj’s visit really necessary, and particularly now, when the central government and provincial governments are still to take office? Some senior leaders outside your party have said the visit was politically ill-timed.
There are some who may say that the messages carried by Swaraj on behalf of the Indian state could have been conveyed via other channels of communication. However, the fact that the Indian state chose to send a representative to convey those messages in person also gives room for us to clarify our own position to them. Regardless of the necessity of the visit, there is no doubt that diplomatic relations are strengthened by such overtures. 

Does this signal India’s acceptance of Nepal’s new left alliance government?
When the constitution was promulgated, India had issues with a number of constitutional clauses because of which differences arose between us. There were also other issues that proved problematic to our relationship and gave rise to the blockade in 2015. But Nepal managed to overcome these problems without compromising on our sovereignty and held the local, provincial and federal elections under the very constitution that India had issues with. By doing so, we met the deadline of holding all three tiers of elections by January 21, 2018 and ensured the implementation of the constitution of Nepal. The success of the elections and the electoral majority attained by the left alliance have shown that the Nepali people wish to move forward with the current constitution, and that they have chosen the left alliance to lead the new government. Now that the Nepali people have made their sentiments clear, what can India do but accept our mandate? 

In 2015, the Oli administration signed some landmark agreements with China regarding trade and transit. With Oli set to assume the premiership once again, there are fears in New Delhi that  Nepal will pursue stronger ties with China. Perhaps this too was a driving factor behind Swaraj’s visit?
First, the reading  that the Oli administration in 2015 was tilted towards China is flawed. Nepal’s geography does not give us the luxury to tilt towards any particular neighbour. If we wish to keep the interests of our country in mind, and if we wish to work in a manner that is beneficial to the Nepali state, then we cannot exclusively align with any one country. It is essential that we maintain balanced relations. And I can tell you conclusively that the new government under Oli will not favour any particular foreign state. We are neither pro-China or pro-India, we are pro-Nepal.  
I also wish to impress upon the fact that the agreements made between Nepal and China under the Oli administration in 2015 were signed with the best interests of the Nepali state and people in mind.   
Furthermore, I’d like to make one more point. The left alliance was formed because both the Maoist Centre and the UML saw that in order to achieve stability and development, a path of peace and unity had to be followed. In the past, the two parties were driven by different agendas, but now, we have come to realise the necessity of peace. Our alliance was guided by this understanding. Not by anything else. 

Relations between India and Nepal soured over differences on the constitution and over other disagreements that followed. How does the new government plan to mend fences?
The new government is in agreement that foreign policy should always prioritise the interests of the Nepali state and uphold the tenet of self-rule, whether in terms of relations between Nepal and China, Nepal and India, or Nepal and any other sovereign state. 
In terms of the foreign relations between Nepal and India in particular, both nations uphold the belief that as two sovereign states, all affairs have to be conducted within the bounds of international laws and regulations, and common international practices. So we have to move forward with these principles in mind. By giving due respect to the sovereignty of each nation state, and with minimal interference, there are many avenues of bilateral progress that we can pursue. For example, tourism, agriculture, roads, rail links, and cross-border transmissions lines are just some areas through which development, prosperity and connectivity can be enhanced. If our interests converge and we collaborate in a manner that is mutually beneficial, then we can make great strides forward. 

Was a future template for India-Nepal relations proposed in the meeting between Swaraj and Oli?
No. Chairman Oli is not yet the prime minister of Nepal, and as such, he does not have the authority to discuss such foreign policy affairs with visiting officials. He attended the meeting as the leader of the left alliance, the party that achieved a majority in the elections, not as the future prime minister. There were no grounds on which to discuss future foreign policy. 

A number of treaties between Nepal and China were signed under the Oli administration in 2015/16. These agreements saw little progress under the administrations that followed. How will the government of the left alliance take them forward? 
The geographical terrain between China and Nepal is difficult to navigate, which is why there has been limited connectivity between the two countries. However, with technological advances, there are now ways to overcome these challenges and enhance connectivity. We must capitalise on this.
We have already established connectivity links with our southern neighbour, India, so there is no reason why we cannot do so with our neighbour to the north as well. For example, in terms of our national electricity grid, we can establish transmission lines with both India and China. By doing so, we will no longer be over reliant on either of our two neighbours. 

Will the new government need to redefine Nepal’s foreign policy?
The left alliance won the elections because we told the public that we aim to bring stability and prosperity to the nation. Now that we have attained a majority in the new administration, we wish to uphold what we promised. In order to do so, we will have to implement and uphold the constitution, institutionalise the rights of the people, strengthen our democratic institutions, and clamp down on corruption. 
Just as we will work to strengthen the state through internal reforms, so will we strengthen our approach to foreign policy. Diplomatic missions will be formulated in a manner that is beneficial for the Nepali state. Missions will be monitored, reviewed, and evaluated to make sure they are up to par. 
We also understand the need of attracting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Taking Nepal from a least developed country to a developing country is no joke. For this to occur, we need FDI. Foreign investors will be attracted if we create a conducive environment for investment, and if there are clear opportunities for profit. Investors must be shown that our state agencies are effective and uphold the rule of law. We need to incentivise foreign investment; otherwise, we will not be able to attract FDI. 
So our state mechanisms, either diplomatic missions or state agencies, have to be made effective in order to achieve this progress. They have to be made accountable and they can no longer be protected by power and money. 

Published: 2018-02-05 08:43:56