We should not accept India’s dominance in energy productionYou cannot have sound economic partnership with any country without first removing the political baggage.
Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal returned home after concluding his four-day official India visit on Saturday. Though the prime minister and ruling coalition partners have hailed the visit as a success, the leaders of the CPN-UML, the main opposition, have criticised the trip saying that Indian agenda prevailed while Nepal’s agendas were sidelined. In this context, Post’s Anil Giri and Tika R Pradhan talked to UML Deputy General Secretary Pradeep Gyawali, who is also a former foreign minister.
As a former foreign minister, how do you evaluate Prime Minister Dahal’s India visit?
This visit was not beneficial for Nepal. If we see the way the agreements have been made, Indian priorities have gotten a concrete shape with clear-cut decisions while Nepal’s priorities were not discussed. Even when there was some discussion, there was ambiguity. Therefore, it failed to meet the expectations of the Nepali side. There was also no ‘historic breakthrough’ unlike what the prime minister claims.
What in your view should have been the agendas for bilateral discussions?
I see a deficit of trust between Nepal and India. It is unprecedented that Nepal’s prime minister had to wait for five months to visit India. And the visit seemed to be happening at our insistence. As we had five months to prepare, we could have made it a ‘state visit’ instead of an ‘official visit’. This shows there is a gap somewhere. This visit should have focused on bridging the trust deficit and developing an environment of mutual confidence. There should have been an open dialogue on what Nepal wants and what India’s concerns were. That could have started with political agendas. The EPG was given a term of reference. It was formed to recommend revisions of bilateral relations in the 21st century. Fortunately, the document came with a consensus even on complex issues. But it has already been four or five years since it was prepared and India is refusing to accept it. Nepal’s grievances with the 1950 treaty remain unaddressed.
The issue of Kalapani-Limpiyadhura incorporated into Nepal’s map is yet to be settled. Nepal’s most important concern is the trade deficit, which is in an alarming stage. A trade treaty had thus become essential. But this could not be achieved. Political issues didn’t get into the agenda and even when they were included India seemed to have turned a deaf ear. You cannot enter a sound economic partnership without first removing political baggage.
Why do you think Prime Minister Dahal failed to take up the issues of the EPG and the 1950 treaty?
As in many other issues, the Maoist leadership or Dahal is also confused on Nepal-India relations. His inconsistent policies have landed Nepal in trouble. Over the years, in his dealings with India, Dahal seems to have acted in ways so as to use foreign relations to serve his power interests—and hence the lack of consistency in the Maoist Centre’s foreign policy.
Of late, it seems Dahal has come to a conclusion that he must improve relations with India. There is no harm in doing that. But we must first be clear about our own priorities and about how we engage with India. I see no such clarity in Dahal. It’s true that a new door has been opened for Nepali energy in the Indian market. The doors for sub-regional trade to Bangladesh via India have also been opened. But a relevant issue needs to be discussed. After Seti River 6 and West Seti, now Phukot Karnali and Lower Arun have been handed over to India. All the investments are now from India.
Is it in national interest to have all investments in hydropower from a single country? How will it affect our competitive capacity and decrease costs? Will it help bring other countries to invest in energy?
Arun III is an exception, all other projects are basically on hold—Pancheshwar has been on hold for the last 26-27 years, Upper Karnali for a decade, and West Seti and Seti River 6 have made no progress.
But what good is getting investment from abroad if India won’t buy our electricity?
First, we need to discuss whether India can say it won’t buy energy produced by certain countries. That is India’s narrow-minded thinking. We should not accept whatever they say. Second, there are other possible markets for Nepali energy. Bangladesh is a new market that can import a lot of energy. China can be another market, even though we have to explore the viability of exporting power to China. China has discussed cross-border transmission lines and work is in progress. Third, in order to industrialise, our current energy consumption has to increase many times. So it is wrong to see India as the only market for our excess energy.
It’s pragmatic to think that India is the largest market so we need to coordinate with it but we should also not accept its dominance in energy production. The over-focus on India will kill our bargaining power and competitiveness.
How will the government’s recent activities affect Nepal’s relations with China?
China will soon be the largest economy in the world. India is also becoming the fifth largest economic power soon, which is an opportunity for us. We need to have the wisdom and capacity to tap them for which we need to develop relations based on confidence. Returning from Beijing in 2008, Dahal said he would go to India for his first political visit. This does not show confidence.
After attending the Democracy Summit this year he should have attended Boao Forum, and he should have sent some senior officials to Raisina Dialogue. His immature activities do the country no good. I believe China has questions over the prime minister’s recent activities. Budhi Gandaki was given to Chinese contractors in an abrupt manner, and the contract was cancelled as abruptly. Tamor could face a similar fate. What will our neighbours think? We are still negotiating with them after 27 years of Pancheshwar.
On the BRI, we didn’t hear anything positive from ministers or the Congress President. He [NC President] tried to develop a narrative that BRI is a debt and we don’t accept debt. Questions could certainly arise when a neighbour makes negative comments. So what are the priorities of Nepal’s foreign policy and what is its neighbourhood policy? And if we fail to answer these questions, we won’t be trusted by any side. We must move ahead by taking both our neighbours into confidence—aware of their contesting issues while always focused on our interests.
How do you see Dahal’s engagement in religious activities in India’s Ujjain?
I don’t think we should try to blow it up. There are ways host countries showcase their culture or civilisation or their achievements. In such cases, their priorities work. We cannot say I won’t attend it. If Dahal has really left behind his extremist thinking, we should take it positively.
What is your assessment of the Dahal government’s foreign policy?
On July 12, 2021, the Supreme Court issued a mandamus order, changing the prime minister but also changing the country’s political course. We had developed a legacy under the leadership of KP Sharma Oli including on foreign relations. We stood boldly on issues of national interest. Taking sovereign equality as the foundation of bilateral relations, moving ahead without any inferiority complex and conducting foreign relations on the basis of equality. Our relations became very diversified then. ‘Amity with all and enmity with none’ was our motto, which amplified Nepal’s stature. We had a proactive and assertive foreign policy, which some power centres that wanted continued instability did not like.
Unknowingly Nepal has become a kind of centre of contested and conflicting geopolitics. In such times, we should have a mature policy. As Dahal needed foreign support to remain in power, a situation of putting forth our issues openly could not be created. My conclusion is that he is bringing disbalance in foreign relations just to buttress his weakened position in the country.
Many UML leaders see foreign hand in the abrupt rise of new forces and displacement of old forces. How do you see this?
In our recent central committee meeting, we discussed the rise of populism. Our conclusion is that the primary reason for its rise is internal. We have enumerated four reasons. First, with the recent political changes and a new constitution, peoples’ expectations are rising but our delivery is weak. People are frustrated. Second, middle-class people, who are normally in their comfort zone and are vulnerable, are now at risk. Around 40 percent of small businesses are closed. Third, coalition culture has affected merit, choice and competitiveness. A wrong message has been delivered—that politics and power are everything and we can do whatever we wish. Fourth, serial incidents of corruption have also raised questions against political parties.
Populism is on the rise due to people’s frustration and often even desperation. There is a risk of this populism being used by different power centres. We have to wait and watch.
How will the UML as a party respond to it?
Populism won’t sustain if it cannot give solutions to the existing problems. Like the Maoist insurgency, other movements that followed could not last as well. But the rise of populism is an alarm bell to existing political forces. Behind this, there are two valid and one artificial reasons—first, we could not deliver and second, there was a gap in people’s connection to the government. The third reason is that alternative media and social media are disseminating frustrations and dissatisfaction by generalising issues.
We will make time-bound delivery while in government and when we are out of power we will raise people’s issues strongly and build pressure on the government. We will now focus on connecting politics to people’s daily lives, with a special youth focus.