Thank you for comingThe neighbourly visits show that Nepal may be turning into a hotbed of competition
It is feared that Nepal, which is being conceived as a transit nation between China and India, may become a battlefield for the two giant neighbours in their effort to get its unqualified support. It is in this context that the visit of Pakistani prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to Kathmandu from March 5 to 6 is being viewed. The Nepali state communicated that Abbasi came to congratulate Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, who had been sworn in recently. But questions have been raised as to why Abbasi was so keen to congratulate Oli in person.
The visit by the prime minister of a member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) was taken in all seriousness. Nepal, as the chairman of the regional bloc, had to welcome him and listen to him. Pakistan was slated to host the 19th Saarc Summit and take charge of Saarc in 2016, but this did not happen as India declined to participate in the conference because of an attack on its army base in the Uri sector of Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan wants the stalled process to get restarted as early as possible. Its desire to host the next summit was confirmed by Bishnu Rimal, chief advisor to Oli. “Both leaders have agreed to sort out issues through mutual consultations if any dispute arises in the Saarc process.” It is now a challenge for Nepali diplomacy to see how it starts negotiations with India and Pakistan to find a way to restart the process. Nepal seems to be in a position to persuade India to come to the negotiation table, as the southern neighbour has to listen to it in the present geopolitical context.
The Pakistani prime minister’s visit seems to have acquired greater significance as it came on the heels of the visit by Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj from February 2-3. However, these two visits have contrasting processes, as Swaraj came before and Abbasi came after Oli was sworn in.
Selling an alternative
The visit may have been designed to kill two birds with one stone. One, Pakistan is interested in forming an alternative economic bloc with China. Two, Abbasi might have come as per Chinese instructions to gauge Swaraj’s effect on Nepal, especially with regard to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which it has signed. Despite China’s repeated reminders, Nepal seems to have allegedly delayed providing details of the projects China wants to construct under the BRI.
The visit might have been arranged to convince Nepal and remove any doubts about the economic effects of the BRI. Pakistan might have listed the benefits it has achieved through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and suggested forming a similar economic corridor for Nepal. In this connection, a Nepali media outlet quoted the Associated Press of Pakistan as stating, “In a meeting between Abbasi and Oli, particular focus was laid on the CPEC and the BRI. He said CPEC would ensure connectivity of regional countries with China and all Central Asian states. Abbasi said Pakistan was ready to share experience and knowledge with Nepal on matters related to the CPEC.”
Abbasi’s visit can also be seen in the context of Indian Prime Minister Modi’s congratulations to Oli. Modi congratulated Oli twice before his appointment and once after assuming office. When Swaraj visited Nepal, she claimed not to have any agenda. The main objective of the visit was to establish direct communication with Oli. It is not known how far the visit helped Oli to regain the country’s highest executive post, which had been snatched away from him in 2016 by Prachanda with support from the Nepali Congress, allegedly at India’s behest.
Curiously, India seems to have deviated from its previous stand to make Nepal’s constitution inclusive to patch up differences with Oli. This has promoted Madhesi-based parties to negotiate with Oli directly to amend the constitution to make it acceptable to all. Significantly, the Oli administration has succeeded in getting the support of both Madhesi-based parties, Sanghiya Samajbadi Forum-Nepal (SSF-N) and Rashtriya Janata Party-Nepal (RJP-Nepal), while seeking a vote of confidence in the House of Representatives on March 11. Oli got 208 out of the 268 votes cast in the House.
Prime Minister Oli is also negotiating with the SSF-N and the RJP-N to join his government. However, the deal with the SSF-N, which is heading the coalition with the RJP-N in Madhesi-dominated Province 2, is almost final. Though these two parties are sticking to their earlier stand to amend the constitution, the government’s position has not been made public. The outcomes of the visits to Nepal of the two foreign dignitaries will be known only after the government takes final shape, and the unification of the CPN-UML and the Maoist Centre takes a definite course. It will be a test for Oli to show his statesmanship as Nepal is likely to be enmeshed in a regional clash of interests.
Mishra is a former Election Commissioner