Our foreign non-policy

From The Kathmandu Post (01 August, 2014)

Inwardly shrivelled Kathmandu seems to have lost its ability to manage international relations

The decade-long internal conflict and its long-lasting political after-effects have gravely impacted Nepal’s foreign policy. This state of Nepal’s international affairs is demonstrated by the palpable nervousness and evident lack of preparation in relation to the arrival on Sunday of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The visit by Modi provides an opportunity for Nepal’s polity to take the all-important Nepal-India relationship back to the political plane, after some years of micromanagement in certain areas by less than accountable agencies. This visit is an opportunity that has fallen on Kathmandu’s lap rather than something it had actively worked to make happen, but the most must be made of it.

Prime Minister Modi is arriving as a friend of Nepal, certainly, but the visit is also linked to his personal, political and geopolitical calculations. Among other things, he is using this neighbourhood trip to send a message to the Western powers, which have been less than enamoured of him in the past (due to the 2002 Gujarat riots) and now want to make up. Further, he seems to be shrewdly using the Pashupatinath darshan to expand the reach of political Hindutva far beyond the followers of Sri Ram to the Shaivaite and tantrik fold.

Kathmandu’s politicos and pundits have been running helter-skelter ever since it became clear last autumn that Modi’s star was on the rise in India. Rather than work to develop Nepal’s own positioning in relation to secularism, republic and federalism, however, they sought to imagine what Modi might or might not do ‘to us’.

Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s posture and presentations during her preparatory visit a few days ago were thus important, as they were clearly meant to indicate the Modi government’s interest in political re-engagement with Kathmandu. And so the question is whether the Nepali interlocutors will rise to the occasion as equals, or prefer to present themselves as a lesser breed of South Asians.


No doubt about it, Nepal’s relationship with India is in shambles. Proof of this lies in the fact that India’s Prime Minister arrives without Nepal having had an ambassador in New Delhi now for nearly three years. This is a clear abdication of national duty by political party leaders, who seem to have forgotten that a sovereign nation needs ambassadors out there, to help control and adjust its international posture.

Modi’s keenness to come to Nepal (and visit Pashupatinath) has been known since his inauguration on May 26 but even so, the Nepali Congress and CPN-UML coalition was unable to prioritise the ambassadorship at Barakhamba Road. No further proof is needed that the polarised and confused politicos have run foreign policy to ground.

It is important to concede that it is the stalwarts of the Nepali polity who have allowed things to get this bad. They were not able to prevent untoward outside influence over governance affairs, constitution-writing, federalism-defining and management of inter-community relations, including that of hill-plain. The political class, intelligentsia and civil society have together sanded down the country’s ‘sovereign manoeuvrability’.


Those responsible for foreign policy (and this does not spare academia) have allowed it to shrink in all others spheres beyond India as well, particularly since the start of the Maoist conflict in 1996. The evidence is strewn all around, from the fact that important international personages stopped visiting Kathmandu (which is why Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent and Modi’s upcoming sojourn hold such relevance) to the closure of visa sections by important Western embassies in Kathmandu.

As with India, the loss of diplomatic dynamism is evident in relation to China. Indeed, Kathmandu has become practically tongue-tied when dealing with Beijing, running from its own shadow as evident in the 14th Shamar Rimpoche episode. Without understanding the politics of Tibetan reincarnated lamas and where China stands in the middle of it all, and disregarding the sentiments of Nepal’s Himalayan Buddhists and other citizens, the government sought to prevent the cremation of the Rimpoche on the excuse that it would displease Beijing.

On Lumbini, the focus of the world’s spiritual seekers, Kathmandu remains stuck in the rut of nationalist flag-waving while ignoring the message of empathy, non-violence and communitarian spirit of the Sakyamuni. With the Buddha’s nativity spot becoming a site for competition among Buddhist sects and a place ripe for ‘geopoliticisation’, the government needs to be alert. It could create a protective umbrella by demanding revival of the moribund International Committee for the Development of Lumbini. This is the only such committee at the UN Secretariat, established at the time of Secretary-General U Thant, but it has not met for two decades due to Kathmandu’s slumber.

Qatar and Israel

Able diplomacy requires fancy footwork, but the weakening of our Foreign Ministry through politicisation and deliberate undercutting of its role has robbed Nepal of the possibility of nuance. The Gulf countries are a lifeline for the remittance-led national economy, but the kafala system keeps hundreds of thousands of Nepali in slave labour conditions. This needs to be  challenged by a carefully calibrated initiative by diplomats with the goal of improving working conditions while ensuring that there is no backlash against Nepal as a sending country.

Within South Asia, Nepal is the country that should be taking initiatives to make the Saarc organisation more energetic, given the headquarters’ location in Kathmandu, the relative ‘acceptability’ of Nepal regionally, and the present Secretary-General being a Nepali official. But Kathmandu has never been more passive on South Asia as it is today. This passivity extends even to the non-governmental sector, where our NGOs tend to serve as mere facilitators of regional meetings while the intellectual leadership is mostly taken by those from other regional countries.

Our intelligentsia has been unable to backstop and challenge our politicians and diplomats so as to help raise Nepal’s profile in the international arena. Take the case of relations with Israel—there was a time, back in 1960, when Prime Minister BP Koirala had the international confidence to buck the ‘non-aligned’ trend and formally recognise the newborn state of Israel. Today, when Israel is immersed in ongoing carnage against the Palestinian civilians of Gaza, Kathmandu is in such international retreat that it does not even feel the need to express itself.

Tri-polar world

There is a whole universe of regional and international issues that Nepal needs to engage with, beyond the matters already suggested. A very partial checklist for study and engagement would include the following: the geopolitical weakening of Europe and its impact on Nepal from human rights to development; the balancing act between China and India in the emerging tri-polar world; proposing innovative agenda before the upcoming Saarc and Bimstec summits; using Kathmandu’s liberal visa regime to develop the Valley as a regional and international hub; working to develop air links with Lahore, Lucknow, Patna and Guwahati and reaching farther afield; proposing Nepal’s interest in Indian Ocean and Antarctic matters, possibly on a South Asian platform; working to lift Nepal Army officers to leadership positions in UN Peacekeeping operations; using the 200th anniversary of the Anglo-Nepal War as an opportunity for promoting the study of history…

And so on and so forth. The question is, are Nepal’s politicians, diplomats and scholars up to it? They should be, if they appreciate the gift of sovereign nationhood bequeathed by ancestors, to be used in the modern era, not for vacuous sloganeering, but as a format and tool for uplifting the livelihood of the citizenry.


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