Nepal’s ambassadors wait—months on end—for political access in Delhi, BeijingIndian, Chinese foreign ministers have yet to grant Sharma and Shrestha the audience.
The “neighbourhood first” policy that New Delhi adopted after the election of Narendra Modi as India’s prime minister in 2014 has proven to be no more than lip service, at least when it comes to the South Block’s treatment of the Nepali ambassador.
Nepal’s Ambassador to India Shankar Sharma has been trying—without success—for 10 months to sit for an official meeting with External Affairs Minister of India S Jaishankar.
Barring occasional informal meetings with Indian ministers, this snub is also a slap in the face of Nepal’s foreign policy that prioritises the country’s neighbours—one of them being India, the mammoth sitting to the south, east and west.
But Sharma has met Home Minister Amit Shah, Union Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia, State Minister for External Affairs Ministry Ranjan Kumar and state ministers and officials from various ministries and departments in New Delhi.
In contrast, whenever an Indian government official visits Kathmandu, they have easy access to all political leaders and government offices here. Kathmandu is generally welcoming of foreign diplomats. The Indian and Chinese ambassadors present their credentials days after they land in Kathmandu and call on the prime minister and foreign ministers hours after they present their credentials.
Sharma, who got the agrément (formal approval of a foreign diplomat) from Delhi rather late prior to his appointment by the then Sher Bahadur Deuba government, had presented his letter of credence to former Indian president Ram Nath Kovind on May 11 last year.
Soon after, the Nepali Embassy in New Delhi had requested the offices of Jaishankar, Doval, Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra and other influential ministers of the Modi government for meetings, but Sharma was given official access only to Kwatra. After repeated attempts and much correspondence, Sharma met Kwatra on July 29 last year.
He has met Jaishankar, Doval and other ministers at various functions, but has not been invited to their offices. “This means our ambassador has yet to make an official call on the Indian foreign minister, but we’ll continue to place our request,” said a Nepali diplomat.
“When we first made the request, Jaishankar was constantly travelling outside with New Delhi engaging big powers like the US, China, Russia, Arab nations and others,” the diplomat said. The minister has not been receptive to the Nepali ambassador even when his business schedule does not seem to be tight.
“We are not given political access and without that, it is difficult to sort issues between Nepal and India,” the diplomat said, clarifying that the ambassador needs to approach respective ministers with a clear political agenda and mandate. Sharma’s predecessor, Nilmaber Acharya, too struggled to meet Jaishankar and the then Indian foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla.
But according to a New Delhi-based Indian journalist who regularly covers Nepal-India issues in the Indian media, Jaishankar does not meet ambassadors even from powerful countries as he is protocol conscious and focused on India’s immediate foreign policy priorities.
“Not getting to meet Jaishankar does not mean India has snubbed Nepal. The state minister for external affairs Meenakshi Lekhi had participated in Holi celebrations at Nepal Embassy that was organised by ambassador Sharma. Had Nepal not been in India’s radar, why would she visit the ambassador’s residence?” said the Indian journalist.
Foreign policy observers and experts give several reasons for Nepal’s weakening stature in the neighbourhood, some of them on the parts of the neighbours—India and China.
When Vedananda Jha was Nepal’s ambassador in Delhi, “he would send reports quoting his meetings with Indira Gandhi, the late Indian prime minister,” former foreign minister Ramesh Nath Pandey said. “When Keshar Bahadur KC was Nepal’s ambassador to China, he met Mao Zedong frequently and was told that Mao was launching the cultural revolution in China.”
This used to be the stature of our ambassadors, said Pandey. “If a foreign minister can get something out of their meeting with our diplomats, they meet. Otherwise, why will they bother?”
This is also an embarrassment that our embassies have failed in their objective, Pandey added. “If Indian and Chinese embassies in Kathmandu can adequately address the concerns of Delhi and Beijing, why would their foreign ministers waste time meeting our envoys? In the changed regional and global contexts, we need to revisit our ambassadorial appointment process.”
Up north in Beijing, Nepali Ambassador Bishnu Pukar Shrestha has had a similar experience. Shrestha has been there for eight months now, but he has yet to secure an appointment to present his credentials to Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Shrestha could not have an official meeting with Wang Yi, the immediate past Chinese foreign minister, nor has he been able to meet Qin Gang, who took charge of the foreign office in December last year.
The Chinese president receives new envoys’ credentials only twice a year, so over 70 ambassadors from different countries are waiting for the occasion, Shrestha told the Post over the phone from Beijing. He presented his credentials to the director general of the Protocol Department of the Foreign Ministry Hong Lei in August last year and started his job formally.
“Once I met foreign minister Wang in Qingdao during the visit of our former foreign minister Narayan Khadka,” said Shrestha. His meeting with Liu Jinsong, the director general of the Department of Asian Affairs, in September, features on the website of the Chinese foreign ministry. There is no other mention of his meetings with high-ranking Chinese officials.
“China has a different system. We have to follow rules and protocols. If we need to communicate something, we need to go through official channels,” said Shretha, who is unsure when he will get to meet the new Chinese foreign minister.
Former Nepali ambassador to China Rajeshwar Acharya presented his credentials to the Chinese president seven days after landing in Beijing, but he had to wait for seven months to secure a meeting with the Chinese foreign minister. Acharya said he often met high-ranking Chinese officials during his stay from 1998 to 2003 in Beijing.
“There is a deficit of trust in our relationships with India and China, and our diplomatic and political engagements with them have been significantly reduced,” Acharya observed.
As Nepal’s diplomacy takes a beating, the country’s outreach has shrunk too. “When the Kathmandu-based Indian and Chinese ambassadors can meet our leaders in five minutes and convey their concerns, why would Indian and Chinese foreign ministers bother to meet our ambassadors?” he asked.
Another former Nepali ambassador to China Mahesh Maskey presented his credentials two months after reaching Beijing and kept on meeting the vice foreign minister.
“I presented my credentials to the then president Hu Jintao, but I don’t remember my first meeting with then foreign minister Yang Jiechi. But I would regularly meet Chinese vice ministers for foreign affairs,” Maskey said.
Nepal’s prime minister, foreign minister and others at the Ministry of Foreign Ministry are aware of the neglect the Nepali envoys have been facing in recent years, but no initiative has been taken to improve the situation, officials said.
“The prime minister and the foreign minister should bring these matters to the notice of Indian and Chinese officials,” a Nepali diplomat who has long served in several Nepali missions abroad said. “If our neighbours keep ignoring us for long, as they have been doing, the prime minister and foreign minister should relay our concerns to the ambassadors of India and China.”
Sharma, Nepal’s envoy to India, is a former ambassador to Washington and served as vice-chairman of the National Planning Commission in Kathmandu. “No reason has been given for denying Sharma an appointment with Jaishankar,” a former Nepali official posted in Delhi said, adding that the Indians view him as a technocrat.
Some blame Kathmandu’s lack of seriousness in its relations with neighbours for the poor state of Nepali diplomacy. “We keep our missions in Delhi and Beijing vacant for months and even years,” former foreign secretary and ambassador Madan Kumar Bhattarai said.
“Appointing ambassadors to our New Delhi and Beijing missions should be our first priority. India and China don’t keep their missions in Kathmandu vacant for long. They send a replacement as soon as the serving ambassador retires, is promoted or transferred.”
Bhattarai also faults our ambassador selection and vetting process. “Chinese and Indian envoys know how long they will stay in foreign missions and who is coming next. Our ambassadors abroad don’t have a clue about when they will be recalled.”