India understands PM Oli has a strong mandate and he’ll negotiate from a position of strength
- Interview Bhekh Bahadur Thapa
Apr 2, 2018-
On April 6, Prime Minister KP Oli will make India his first foreign destination as Prime Minister of Nepal in his current tenure. New Delhi has been making overtures to restore Nepal-India ties that had hit a low when Oli was last prime minister. These advances could not be better timed. In recent days, PM Oli has stressed to the diplomatic community that economic development would be a top priority for the left alliance government, and that diplomatic relations would be fuelled by Nepal’s national interests. Mukul Humagain and Anil Giri spoke with former foreign minister Bhekh Bahadur Thapa, who is also a member of the Eminent Persons Group (EPG). He also served as Nepal’s ambassador to India.
PM Oli is slated to conduct a state visit to India this week. What should be the focus of the visit?
There is no doubt that efforts are being made from both Indian and Nepali sides to revitalise relations and to establish closer ties. The two nations realise that a fresh start must be made and that the differences that arose in the recent past must be put aside. Discussions to this effect are taking place at the top levels of government. PM Oli has to take into consideration the age-old ties between India and Nepal and he must try to pinpoint where our paths diverged.
PM Oli leaves for India with a strong mandate, representing a strong left alliance government. Will India see Nepal in a different light given his mandate and the fact that the government looks to be stable?
Until recently, Nepal was in a state of turmoil and there has been a lack of stability when it comes to politics and governance. While politicians were strong on rhetoric, when it came to promising peace and prosperity, their words sounded hollow. Our state of internal disorder has had impact on the way that other countries, including India, have seen us.
But now, Nepal is in a much better position. We have a constitution, we have successfully completed three levels of elections in keeping with constitutional provisions, and we have realised a federal structure of governance. We have made great strides towards realising political stability in a few short years. And now, we are in a position to pursue our relations with our neighbours and other global powers with new confidence. This time around, we can state our terms and we can establish stable foreign policy objectives. India also recognises this change in Nepal, and now Oli will negotiate from a position of strength.
Do the domestic imperatives in India have anything to do with the recent overtures towards Nepal—particularly considering that the Indian elections are approaching and that there is a need for Indian PM Narendra Modi to seen to be enjoying stable relations with immediate neighbours?
This is a perspective that has been much bandied about by the media. The Indian National Congress has blamed PM Modi for ruining relations with immediate neighbours and perhaps this perspective could affect electoral results. When I first met PM Modi, before he served as Chief Minister of Gujarat, he made clear the religious and cultural connections he felt towards Nepal. But when he became PM, it seems as though this connection was put aside. There is no doubt that India needs to establish better relations with its neighbours. That being said, restoring Indian and Nepali ties will be mutually beneficial; it won’t be exclusively to the benefit of the BJP and PM Modi.
And how does China factor in as Nepal and India restore their ties?
Geography, trade and socio-cultural relations have tied Nepal, China and India together. Because of this, balanced relations are essential between all three countries. Nepal cannot choose between India or China; stable relations must be established with both nations. Our neighbours to the north and south are rising powers in the global sphere and are rapidly growing in terms of development and economic growth, and Nepal is in a prime position to benefit from their progress. For example, China’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI) is just one way in which Nepal can benefit from connectivity. That said, the fact that Nepal is forming such relations with China in no way means that we are eschewing our centuries-old relations with India.
Could pursuing balanced relations with India and China prove to be a major challenge for this government?
National interests should be the primary focus of any Nepali government. In order to promote national interests, the government has to pursue balanced relations so that we can make the most of the opportunities presented by both India and China. For this, our strategic capabilities have to be strong. Over the years, our strategic capabilities have proved very weak, affected by the lack of political stability. We need to build on this capability now that we have a stable government.
How do we build on our current capabilities to pursue regional and global engagement?
Stability within the country is essential for a solid foreign policy, and to achieve this stability, there are a great many things that we have to address internally. For the past few decades, a select group of politicians seem to be sitting on a rotating wheel of power, where they each enjoy a brief period of authority, allow someone else to assume the same space for a while, and then spin forward to occupy the position again. This has made us moribund and has led to a lack of progress on foreign policy initiatives. But now I hope that with the establishment of a federal republic, and with a strong and majority government in power for the next five years, there will be commitment and progress that has been much missing.
The current Nepali government is one with a strong nationalist stance. The BJP government in India too is known for its nationalist sentiment. Could this take us on a collision course?
A strong nationalist government has to form a robust agenda that takes into consideration the will and interests of its people. Because foreign policy initiatives fuel progress and could prove beneficial for both countries, they are key to national interests. So nationalism, foreign policy and national interests go hand in hand, because of which I believe that there will be no clashes as a result of nationalist governments. Disputes will occur only if there are disagreements when it comes to each country’s objectives, or if one nation’s actions impinge on the other. But with diplomacy, such differences can be overcome and a mutually beneficial environment can be established. India may have its own agenda when it comes to Nepal, and vice versa, but this does not mean that there will be conflict between the two.
In his address to the diplomatic community last week, PM Oli laid out six points of strategic interest—nationalism, territorial integrity, national independence, the fulfilment of national interests, sustainable peace and prosperity based on equality and stability, and progress and development. What do they indicate?
PM Oli’s statement that our national interests, and particularly our economic development, will be at the core of our foreign policy priorities gives reason for hope. There are also indications that the government is actually working towards this end; teams have been formed with members of the bureaucracy and certain politicians who are tasked with driving economic growth. Of course, only time will tell whether this will result in anything concrete.
Could this drive for quick development and our government’s nationalist approach affect our relations with development partners and donors?
Problems will arise only if our national interests conflict with the development priorities of those organisations working in Nepal. We must strive to walk a parallel path.
In the past, we have turned towards the development sector for aid and assistance; this impinged on our independence to a huge degree. Those donors who gave us aid
were always in the right and we never had the courage to speak up.
But this has to change now. We must tell these donors that they must function in a manner that does not hurt on our national interests. If they respect our interests, then there will be no issue.
Published: 02-04-2018 08:10