BY P. KHAREL
More than a fortnight after Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s 25-hour visit “without agenda” and “without invitation” to Kathmandu, people continue to discuss it as “untimely”, considering that the Sher Bahadur Deuba-led coalition cabinet was on its way out and the KP Oli-headed CPN (UML)-Maoist Centre team was impatiently waiting for governing from Singh Durbar. The potpourri tag of the visit included the element of Swaraj’s visit not as “a minister” but as India’s ruling group, Bharatiya Janata Party. And no formal invitation was sent.
For long the “inappropriate visit” is likely to be a reference point for those imputing Indian government’s motive in sending its minister to Kathmandu without any sense of timing. Having felt the pulse of Nepali leaders regularly, New Delhi considered it worthwhile to go ahead in meeting the Nepali leaders at the earliest.
RPP President and Deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa termed the visit’s paphernalia exhibited servitude on Nepal’s former prime ministers’ part by trooping to the visitor’s place of sojourn shedding all diplomatic norms.
Although his own party president and immediate past Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal was among those who paid a call-on Swaraj, Maoist leader Narayan Kaji Shrestha described the visit as “inappropriate” at a time when a defeated government was winding up its business and another group was all set to take over. He dismissed the existence of any “special relationship” between Nepal and India, terming such ties only compromised Nepal’s sovereign right to make its own decisions without having to refer them to the approval of another country.
Experts patronised by state-supported foundations and retired officers in India have been lamenting since the past few years, especially after the Indian trade blockade in 2018, that India had lost “considerable ground to China in the recent times”. The conclusion is correct. Nepalis have realised with greater determination that alternatives are always reassuring in preparations of potential rainy days too.
For a landlocked, agranian economy, lack of viable alternatives can be crippling to the daily life of an average citizen. The Madesh closure two years ago, spearheaded at Delhi’s behest, jolted most Nepalis into reassessing the “friendly” neighbour’s intent and purpose. Nepalis survived the bitter experience as they did similar blockades at least twice in the 1960s and 1989-90.
NATIONAL FEELING: The positive side of blockade was a surge in national feelings. Groups that preferred to remain silent on the issue that adversely affected all Nepalis were accorded low opinion. Among the large parties, Nepali Congress had to pay the price of having kept silence during the Indian blockade. It suffered its worst ever defeat in the 2017 local, provincial and parliamentary polls.
On the other hand, CPN (UML) and Maoist Centre, which had combined as coalition partners during the testing times, gained the most. They emerged as the majority combination in the new parliament. Rastriya Prajatantra Party was reduced to a lone seat in parliament and found itself pathetically marginalised in local bodies as well, sharly contrasting with its status as the king-making grouping in the previous house.
Hence the Swaraj visit did not win many admirers nor did it fail to convey the message that it was losing ground in Nepal and hence the need for a corrective course. This will be reiterated if Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi does become the first foreign head of government to pay a trip to Nepal after the new government under a new Constitution has been formed. This would also be ahead of the long-awaited visit to Kathmandu by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s.
Nepalis have more than adequate reference points as reasons for being extra cautious with the gestures from their southern neighbour. As the late King Birendra once told a foreign news media, Nepalis feel “cheated” when it came to relations with India. If Modi does make a visit to this country in the next few weeks, it should not be rejected as another ploy to meddle in the affairs well within Nepal’s sovereign rights.
REFERENCE REBUFF: Such visit can be welcomed as a positive measure in diplomacy on New Delhi’s party, aimed at regaining the lost level of goodwill and trust from Nepalis. The casual treatment meted out to Nepal was tellingly indicated by the fact Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh, during his ten-year tenure in office, paid official visits to more than 90 countries on all continents and regions, but he skipped Nepal.
Nepal’s former ambassador to South Korea and regular scribe Kamal Koirala wrote in Sanghu weekly not long ago: “Noting the unbearable interference by Indian ambassador(s) in Nepal’s internal affairs, BP [Biseshor Prasad Koirala] shed the illusion [of intentions of New Delhi]…Unable to counter Nepalis’ deep feelings of national independence, freedom and national integrity, they tried to introduce a new phrase, ‘Mahendra-nationalism’. After the 2005-6 movement, the nafarious activity of a campaign to ‘flush out hill people’ from terai was unleashed.”
Such assessments might have led Nepalis to begin reasserting for initiatives aimed at not being held hostage to a suffocating single supplier of basic items such as food and fuel while, at the same time, reorienting the country’s foreign policy slowly but surely.