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Sell-out or buy-in?

By Maila Baje
image001Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba probably expected the ‘sell-out’ slur well before he delivered his constitutional amendment assurance at the joint news conference with his host, Narendra Modi, in New Delhi the other day. If not the constitution, our premier’s critics would have found something else to quibble with.
Even before departing Kathmandu, Deuba must have taken some reassurance in Modi’s own discomfort. With Doklam having defined Nepalis aspirations and exasperations vis-à-vis Deuba’s visit, Modi couldn’t have afforded to take a hard line. Any significant softening on Nepal was also out of the question, given the pressure the Indian prime minister faced from his nation’s foreign-policy hyperrealists. So Modi was left with playing with the optics.
And the Indian prime minister did conjure up new visualizations. Modi’s unscheduled warm-up meeting with Deuba – after having dispatched External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to the airport to welcome the guest – gave Nepalis good reason to begin scratching their heads. Swaraj’s impromptu water-glass gig further elevated style over substance, which the Indians no doubt found handy in drawing the attention of the Chinese.
Subsequent news coverage suggested that Nepal-China relations figured prominently during bilateral talks in Delhi. If so, it’s unlikely that the Indians expressed satisfaction over Nepal’s success in diversifying good-neighborliness. They would have commended us publicly if that was how they felt.
It’s more like that they admonished us in private. Don’t try to punch above your weight over the Doklam opening, fellas, or some such variation. Nepal is in no better shape than Bhutan when it comes to withering under two wrestling behemoths.
Notwithstanding the external bonhomie, visiting Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang’s private message earlier in the month couldn’t have been much different, except for an additional admonition on the folly of falling into a maze of Trumpian unpredictability.
Did Nepal need such reprimands? Even if we did take sides on Doklam, it’s not likely that we would have reinforced our sentiment with military or other such powerful underpinnings. Sure, we could maintain a pious diplomatic posture malleable enough for everyone. But, then, how much room do we really have to stretch ourselves? So it’s all about self-preservation. Call it equidistance, equiproximity or what else you will, we’re in the little league.
That doesn’t mean we don’t have options. Was it a coincidence that Nepal used Deuba’s visit to India to let it be known that it was planning to ask China to extend its Shigatse railway line upto Kathmandu via Kerung. Lest you dismiss this as another instance of the beggar trying be the chooser, Nepal intends to back up its request on the ground that the proposed railway falls under the concept of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Translation: Nepal took a great risk in joining the BRI and needs to show something for it.
Sell-out?Nah. Sounds more like a buy-in.

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