Make or break
- Nepal’s long dormant foreign policy needs a new focus on cooperation and building confidence
May 20, 2014-Minister of Foreign Affairs Mahendra Pandey has held a series of discussions with former foreign ministers, foreign secretaries, ambassadors, economists, journalists and others with a view to set a new agenda for Nepal’s foreign policy. Such enthusiasm shown by the minister deserves appreciation, despite his own limitations in the given situation.
Foreign policy priorities
First, the country is passing through a critical phase of crisis of governance, along with virtually anarchical conditions in all aspects of national life. Second, the political parties that are expected to steer a new course for the country’s political, social and economic development suffer from self-attrition, owing to their ideological dilemmas, organisational disorder, personal quarrels and weak leadership. No government can take effective decisions in the midst of a personalised political atmosphere where each leader and their factions compete, not for commonly set objectives, but to maximise personal benefits.
Third, the foreign minister should devote his time and energy to upgrading the ministry by preparing a generation of diplomats who can understand the nuances and conduct of foreign policy in today’s changed regional and international context. They should be equipped with training, a hard working culture and commitment to objectives set by the country. This may take some time but a beginning should be made. Another immediate task for the ministry is also to fill diplomatic vacancies by appointing ambassadors on the basis of merit.
Fourth, economic diplomacy seems to have been a pet agenda for a long time. In 1996, it was taken as a popular area for the foreign policy making and implementation process. It has now been resurrected at a time other crucial preconditions—such as a conducive internal political situation, the credibility of the government, an investment-friendly atmosphere, security guarantee and minimum political consensus for project implementation—are lacking. During his recent visit to South Korea, Foreign Minister Pandey is reported to have sought an “increased level of support and partnership from South Korea for the development of hydro-energy, road and rail links”, among others. Responding to this request, the Korean foreign minister, as the press reported, diplomatically suggested that Nepal needed more “policy reforms and a conducive environment” to attract foreign investment in major projects.
Finally, for a country like Nepal, in the absence of internal preconditions—peace, political stability, governance and faster economic development—no sound foreign policy can be envisaged. Nepal’s two immediate neighbours—China and India—have realised that the status of a country is determined by its ability to speed up economic growth, generate capital and alleviate poverty. China and India’s top priority to this agenda would have to be taken into account by any sensible government in Nepal. Baburam Bhattarai was unnecessarily hounded by his adversaries for proposing Nepal as a bridge between the two developing economies—Chinese and Indian—so as to cope with the newer challenges and opportunities by faster development in its neighborhood, lest “Nepal be submerged”. This means that Nepal should mobilise its resources for development to be worthy of the benefits of its neighbours’ development.
Modi and Nepal
The Narendra Modi wave in India and the speeches he has made in the wake of campaigns in the recent elections have emphasised the issue of development to make India a great and strong power. There has been a great expectation from the Indian people that a leader with charisma, experience and organisational support would transform India’s existing sluggish economic progress. The previous Manmohan Singh government, which was hamstrung by a lack of internal party support, a low profile leadership role and the pulls and pressures of coalition politics, was almost immobile for some time.
Now that India has passed through that stage, the new government has many striking features in the history of post-independence India. First, this is the first non-Congress government to power on its own strength, even if it has the additional support of its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The new government is not likely to face the problems of its predecessors, as most of them were either formed with the backing of the Congress or with the support of other alliance partners.
The thrust of the Modi government is likely to be economic but its commitment to improve relations with neighbours is no less significant. It is amazing that in India’s foreign policy arena, neighbouring countries have received less priority in the recent past. A close neighbour like Nepal was almost neglected by the top leadership, despite
its engagement in routine affairs. Sometimes, the Indian leadership from New Delhi took active part in monitoring and influencing developments in Nepal. However, these were positive indulgences for ending the ten-year Maoist insurgency, as well as for supporting the aspirations of the Nepali people. Nevertheless, total negligence or even dismal indifference could be observed when no Indian Prime Ministers made no gesture to spend a day or two in Nepal by way of reciprocating the visits of their Nepali counterparts.
It can be assumed that Nepali politicians, who demean their own status by becoming more self-seeking and individualistic for maximising favours, might have led the Indian side to be lackadaisical. However, it must be admitted that in recent years, Nepal’s political parties’ leaders, with few exceptions, have shown a high degree of political maturity in understanding the basics of Indo-Nepal relations. Occasional swings are noticeable in their behaviour but their impact on spoiling the bilateral relationship has been negligible. The new Prime Minister of India would perhaps make a choice to visit the Pashupatinath temple, which by itself would give him an excuse to visit Nepal, although world leaders are scrambling to make requests to Modi to visit their countries as soon as possible.
Many in Nepal assume that the new Indian government may be inclined to influence Nepal’s internal politics, particularly on the issue of a Hindu state. Individual opinions of some Bharatiya Janata Party leaders might have been aired in the past but pragmatic leaders, who know the internal dynamics of Nepal to be sometimes spectacular, are unlikely to be involved. Already misunderstood as a ‘micro-manager’ of Nepal’s day-to-day affairs, the new leadership, as well as the overall state establishment, would not dig up already settled issues. It is up to the people of Nepal to adopt any principle, and if they want to change it, they can do so. Why should India take interest, as India itself is a secular state despite being a Hindu-dominated country?
Nepali foreign policy, which has been in a dormant state for long, needs to be reactivated by injecting certain new elements. It should try to focus on cooperative development and building trust and confidence. Political elites, intellectuals and the business community should understand that a country’s status will be enhanced by the political and economic empowerment of its people, and not by harping on about campaigns and unfounded speculation that work as a permanent grist for distrust. Above all, mature diplomacy, a development-centric internal policy and a cooperative attitude can ensure national security.
Baral is the author of a number of books, most recently ‘Nepal—Nation-State in the Wilderness: Managing State, Democracy and Geopolitics’ (2012, Sage Publications)
Published: 21-05-2014 09:19