Nepal's foreign policy failureThe oft-repeated policy of equidistance between India and China is unrealistic.
Foreign and domestic policies are two separate domains having to complement each other. For Nepal in particular, domestic politics overshadows foreign policy objectives when foreign policy becomes subservient to the rulers’ interest. During the Rana and Shah regimes, there was only a thin difference between domestic and foreign policies. Though such foreign and domestic policies continue cheek by jowl today to some extent, there has been a growing tendency to domesticate foreign policy.
Nevertheless, it must be admitted that Nepal has neither a well-articulated foreign policy nor an effective mechanism to execute it, if any. First, issue-areas need to be identified to be fitted into the policy framework. Some issues existing between Nepal and its neighbours remain perennially unaddressed as no concrete plan of action has ever been worked out by any government. For domestic political consumption and image projection, issues are often brought to the fore, but are soon forgotten or kept in abeyance. Some issues concerning Nepal-India are structural in nature, and other instant issues such as border problems, damage caused by floods, inundation, trade and transit problems and others that crop up from time to time lack sustained efforts for resolution. For both structural and immediate issues, Nepali politicians take opportunistic approaches that suit their immediate interests.
Second, Nepal’s foreign policy as of today is based on ad hoc arrangements, often punctuated by hyper populism, not dictated by principles. Prime Minister KP Oli, who came to power on the crest of 'populist nationalism' after the Modi government imposed an unannounced blockade in 2015, has taken a U-turn following the alleged Chinese advice to compromise with his party detractors for retaining the unity of the Communist Party of Nepal. As Oli didn’t like to secede from his combined role of prime minister and party president, he is believed to have changed the partner (China) for India for no plausible reason but to get the southern neighbour’s support for rescuing him from the developing crises in the country.
His failure to manage his own party and the crisis of governance that has prevented him from delivering has added to his troubles. Oli’s new religious proclivities and his other efforts to be closer to the present Indian establishment might be beneficial for the short run, but they would not address the issues affecting bilateral relations. Taking a cue from such developments, some senior former diplomats of India have cautioned the Modi government against putting all their eggs into the Oli basket as other forces opposed to him would be equally important for bilateral interests.
Third, Nepal’s foreign policy today is an abandoned area as policy has been hijacked by the priority accorded to the selection of party workers to fill up diplomatic posts. Since communication is the desirable qualification for such posts, most new ambassadors appointed by Prime Minister Oli are not only novices but also lack minimum standards and knowledge of diplomacy. Language, respectability, acceptance of persons and confidence are the qualities of a diplomat. If an ambassador does not possess these qualities, how can we expect good performances in diplomatic assignments?
Diplomatic assignment in India is particularly challenging both diplomatically and personally. The stature of a diplomat is judged by his ability to communicate to as many constituencies as possible. And the recognition of his ability and the trust put in him matters a lot. My short tenure as ambassador in New Delhi has contributed to my knowledge of Nepal-India relations. The ambassador in India is not only a diplomatic representative in the classical sense of diplomacy, but he has many other roles to play. His personal contacts and the respect he commands in South Block and from other persons and institutions enables the ambassador to communicate, persuade and convince. The first thing needed to earn trust and confidence in Nepal’s ambassador is his image as a friend of India who promotes his country’s interests without being prejudiced against Indian concerns.
Thus, diplomatic performance is part of the successful communication of foreign policy objectives and strategies needed to achieve them. Nepal foreign policy suffers from ambivalence, ad hoc actions and lack of short- and long-term policies relating to the bilateral, regional and multinational aspects of relations. Internationally, Nepal is virtually isolated and ignored due to both domestic political bickering and lack of direction and vision. It is well demonstrated by the way Prime Minister Oli used the president to communicate with foreign heads of state for addressing the Covid-19 pandemic. Even Nepal’s northern neighbour China seems to be irked by the Oli government’s mishandling of the Covid vaccine deal.
Nepal has no stable policy based on well-defined objectives and strategies for achieving them. First, issues are taken to the street for mobilising public opinion which is fed by nationalist-populism and emotion. Thus, the sustained efforts needed to resolve problems fall prey to the immediate interest of leaders. KP Oli cashed in on India’s suggestion to make an inclusive constitution that could accommodate the demands of Madhesis. Oli immediately turned into a thoroughbred nationalist and cajoled the Nepali people in the 2017 elections. Oli seems to be playing the Hindu card for electoral purposes. Some politicians and religious gurus were inducted by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to persuade Nepali leaders to not include secularism in the new constitution. This mission failed with Nepal adopting secularism, though a dubious version of it. Now Oli sends signals of his religious views that do not conflict with the BJP agenda taking him closer to the Indian objective. This has prompted the five former prime ministers of Nepal to raise the bogey of foreign interference, though they themselves play the same tune as played by Oli when they are in power.
Finally, the conventional approach to foreign affairs continues to influence Nepali politicians and rulers. So no reasonable pragmatic thinking based on the contours of geo-political realities guide the rulers. Nepal’s relations with India demand a deeper and objective understanding to turn them into a cooperative relationship as the ties with India cannot be equated with those with any other country. The policy of equidistance between India and China, which is often repeated by no other persons than some foreign ministers of the country themselves, is not only unrealistic but also absurd. It is unfortunate that political leaders have failed to understand such a deep, wide-ranging relationship because they are always guided by immediate interests of their own rather than those of the country.