Nepal’s participation in OBOR in its national interest: Nepal PM

By Sachin Parashar (TNN, NEW DELHI, 6 April  2018) –  Nepal is not going to align with any country against India but its participation in China’S OBOR is in keeping with its “well-judged’’ national interest, Nepal PM K P Sharma Oli told TOI in an exclusive interaction. Oli arrives in India Friday on a 2-day visit for what is his first overseas tour after taking over again as prime minister.

Oli was the PM in 2015-16 when a blockade at the India-Nepal border, for which many in Kathmandu still hold India responsible, crippled Nepal economically. He, however, said that he held no grudge against India and that he was coming here to seek a trust based relationship.

Talking about participation in OBOR, Oli said that this was important for his country because Nepal didn’t want to perennially languish in poverty and backwardness. He assured the international community though that all finances under OBOR will be assessed against standards internationally practised. Oli said while it had been Nepal’s principled policy not to allow its soil for any hostile activities directed against its neighbours, it also expected similar assurances from its neighbours. The condition will be assessed against standards internationally practised

Significantly, while answering a question about his recent meeting with his Pakistan counterpart Shahid Abbasi, Oli stated that Nepal desired that the Saarc summit process be revived. India blocked the summit, which is to be held in Islamabad, after the Uri terror attack in J&K.

Excerpts:

Q. You have returned to power in a very big way. It’s a formidable majority. What do you think made this possible?

A: More important than the victory of any party is the successful achievement of the most significant milestone in implementation of the constitution, namely the elections to all three tiers of federal set up. Following the polls, the local levels have elected governments hugely empowered under the constitution. We also have elected government in all provinces under the new federal arrangements. We now have materialized the constitutional spirit of bringing government closer to people.

You have rightly pointed out that the Left Alliance that my party, Communist Party of Nepal (UML) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) forged ahead of provincial and federal elections, has received a resounding mandate of the people of Nepal. We had announced that the alliance is a result of the people’s desire to see a unified leftist force in the country that would form a strong and stable government, and this would instead provide an enabling environment to carry forth the country’s pressing development agendas in a serious manner. We have the Left Alliance government not only at the centre but also in 6 of the 7 provinces and in the remaining one province, there is a government formed with our support as well.

The main reason for our success in the elections was the immense trust that people of Nepal reposed on us. It was the trust on our agendas, our leadership and the vision we outlined for the future of the country. By expressing their overwhelming support to us, the Nepali people trusted that our leadership can effectively carry forth national agenda and protect the national interests and enhance the dignity of the nation. A sense of optimism prevails among Nepali people at present and it is due to our strong commitment to advance the process of economic development and social transformation with a visionary course ahead. We are committed to work day and night to realize the vision and dreams we have shared with our people.

People trusted that we are competent to root out the evils of corruption and bad governance that hindered the country’s development. They saw in our manifesto a vision for a society based on equality and social justice.

To cut it short, our electoral performance has been made possible by the people’s desire to see our leadership in steering the country on the path of development and prosperity, leaving behind the protracted political transition that was painful and costly.

Q. Much to the relief of all in India, you have chosen to visit India first after taking over as PM. How significant is Nepal’s relationship with India for you and what is the role you envisage for India in your march towards development?

A: India is our immediate neighbour, with whom Nepal’s relations have been quite extensive and multifaceted. Our relations have a long history. Since pre-historic days, people of one place travelled freely to another and we have maintained such freedom of movement even to the modern days.

Our relations cover not only political aspect but also extend to economic, social and cultural dimensions. Geographical proximity and cultural similarities bring our people closer to each other.

Economic and commercial engagements are comprehensive. Two third of our foreign trade is with India. Indian investment tops our FDI list and so do Indian tourists in our tourism map. India is also among our major development partners. Cross-border connectivity is expanding and we intend to develop it further for easy movement of people, goods and services.

Bilateral trade has steadily increased. But, Nepal’s trade deficit with India is growing at an alarming rate. This is not sustainable. We need to take concrete measures to address this situation. We have to undertake a thorough review of the existing trade treaty to address structural constraints that impede Nepal’s exports to India. It is a fact that some of the provisions of the bilateral trade treaty are less favourable than what is available under SAFTA framework. We need to work on both tariff and non-tariff measures and also on quarantine and testing related facilities for both agricultural and industrial products.

India has been supporting us in our development efforts for a long period of time. There are certain ongoing development cooperation projects that require greater impetus for expeditious completion to deliver results. Projects like Pancheshwor are waiting for a decisive push in line with the spirit of the Majhakali Treaty concluded two decades ago. Successful implementation of mutually agreed mega projects help enhance confidence to take up equally ambitious projects. Our two countries are working on this. But, we need to pursue this more seriously.

We have a number of Indian investors who have successfully invested in Nepal. We need more investment to meet our development needs. Hydropower, agriculture, tourism, infrastructure and IT are some of the areas in which we need substantial investment. We welcome investment from India to tap our development potentials. The Government of Nepal is fully committed to further improving investment climate in the country to attract FDI.

Having left behind over a decade-long political transition, we have entered into the era of political stability. Our next priority is economic transformation with the motto, “Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepali”. People have abounding optimism for the realization of their long-cherished goal of economic prosperity for a decent life. The accelerated pace of development with double-digit economic growth is what we need to realize this genuine yet ambitious goal. India is making progress in many spheres. We are happy to see India’s growing progress and prosperity. When India rapidly transforms its development landscape, Nepal cannot be left behind. This is where we value the partnership with India. And, we need to understand that this partnership is mutually beneficial, as a prosperous and developed Nepal is in India’s interests too.

Q. You were recently quoted as having said that India will play a “supportive” role in Nepal’s development? Could you expand on that?

A: As said earlier, Nepal is heading towards political stability following the recent elections and formation of strong governments at provincial level and at the centre. We have made huge sacrifices through successive people’s struggles and revolution to come to this stage. With the promulgation of highly progressive and democratic constitution, we have settled our political agendas and what remains to be realized is the economic agenda. We are aware that unless propelled by a solid economic foundation, our democratic institutions and practices cannot sustain. There is no option for us, therefore, other than to focus on the development agenda. And, in this context, I have said and I fully believe that India can be our valuable partner.

We have a huge gap of resources as well as technology. When it comes to technology and technical know-how, India’s experience could be a useful lesson for us. In addition, India has been making impressive progress for quite some time in all spheres of development — from businesses and industry to IT, from science and technology to infrastructure, from human development to ease of doing business. We see rapid economic transformation in India as an immense opportunity for growth and development for next door Nepal. The only thing is that we need to devise ways of translating this opportunity into real benefits– it could be in terms of more FDI from India or more facilitative terms of trade with India. I have already touched upon trade-related issues. We need to rectify huge trade imbalance.

We do visualize the important contribution that tourism can make in our economy. Nepal is and must be a natural choice for Indian tourists because of geographical proximity and so many other enabling factors rooted in socio-cultural milieu. Pristine nature and rich cultural treasures make Nepal a tourist destination throughout the year. We need more tourists from India. Dedicated promotional programmes and encouragement by the Government of India would make a difference in augmenting the flow of tourists from India.

Q. Many in Nepal hold India responsible for the 2015-16 blockade of the border which obviously caused tremendous hardship to the common man in your country. Looking back, do you hold a grudge against India for that? Or maybe a feeling that you were let down by India? Am asking this question also because after your ouster from power in 2016, some reports in Nepal media quoted you as having accused India of plotting your downfall.

A: It is true that the period of late 2015 and early 2016 was a difficult time in Nepal-India relations. Nepali people had to face immeasurable hardships in daily life when essential supply lines were cut off. We had not expected that such a painful situation would occur at all in the wake of the promulgation of a new constitution, which was the most important democratic exercise in our constitutional and political history. Furthermore, it was an added hardship for the people of Nepal who were still traumatised by the impacts of devastating earthquakes.

However, everyone must appreciate one thing that both sides were engaged at various levels even during the difficult times and our conversations continued with a view to clear our misunderstanding and finding a way out of the difficult circumstances. Ultimately, as a result of our continuous efforts, situation was normalised and relations got back to track just prior to my previous visit to India.

I do not want to get into the details of who did what for what purpose. We are wise enough to gauge what went wrong in the particular period of history and how undesirable moments could be avoided. Learning lessons for future is more crucial than being stuck with the past.

What we all have realized is that there is no option to better Nepal-India relations. Such relation is in the interest of both our countries. One needs the other and hence, friendly relation between us is in the interest of both of us. Our current engagement is guided by the same motivation.

My principal message is that we want to develop a trust-based relationship that is beneficial to both and reflects the realities of the 21st century. I strongly believe that observance and practise of such noble principles as equality, justice, mutual respect, goodwill, understanding and benefit as well as peaceful coexistence contribute to buttress trust and make our relationship more stable and predictable.

Q. I want to ask you about China because there is a widespread feeling in India that in trying to reduce Nepal’s economic and connectivity dependence on India, your government’s foreign policy might tilt towards China. Would you like to say anything to allay that apprehension in India? What is the role you see China playing in Nepal’s development?

A: We pursue an independent foreign policy and a balanced outlook in the conduct of international relations. China is also our immediate neighbour. I have already said that our relations with India are extensive and multifaceted. And, I am against any kind of comparison of one relation with another. I have also underlined time and again that Nepal wants to expand its connectivity with India, trade with India and various other components of engagements with India. But in the meantime, we are never confused about the fact that we have two neighbours.

We believe in amity with all and enmity with none. This we have practised in earnest. Fortunately for us, both of our neighbours are good friends and are helpful; both are rapidly progressing in all spheres of development indicators, and both are aspiring to play an active role in shaping global agenda. Nepal is fully cognizant that its future lies in good, friendly and cooperative relations with both of its neighbours. And, it has been our principled policy not to allow our soil for any hostile activities directed against our neighbours. It is but natural for us to expect similar assurances from our neighbours.

The rumour about ’tilting’ is all media construct and such rumours are rooted in unnecessary zero-sum mindset that Nepal’s engagement with one neighbour is detrimental to the other. Why should we have such thinking at all? Why do we not see a particular relation on its own merit? Instead of nurturing this zero sum thinking, we should rather have been talking about how we fellow Asians should be working together to drive the region out of the slumber and backwardness of the past 200 years.

When one sees ’tilting’ in any engagement of Nepal with China, what does one have to say on the magnitude of India-China engagement itself, particularly the volume of economic engagement? Let’s look at the volume of India-China trade or FDI from one country to the other. Nepal has always viewed such engagement positively. We believe that enhanced relationship between our two neighbours is in Nepal’s overall interest.

Our desire is to expand our relations with both neighbours– be it in terms of physical connectivity, trade and other areas. Let me make it clear in the meantime that Nepal never aligns with one country against the other. We have been sincerely pursuing non-aligned policy as a major thrust of our foreign policy.

Q. Nepal is now officially associated with China’s OBOR but India believes OBOR challenges India’s sovereignty and its territorial integrity. While Nepal has nothing to do with China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is an integral part of OBOR, there are concerns in India about how mindful your government will be of India’s security interests while pursuing its engagement with Beijing. Would you like to say anything on it?

A: Nepal decided to join OBOR absolutely in view of its well-judged national interest. This has happened as part of bilateral cooperation with China. Economic development is our topmost priority. Nepal cannot afford to perennially languish in poverty and backwardness when our neighbours and rest of the world make incredible progress in every sphere. We also need space to grow and prosper. We believe that a prosperous Nepal is in the interest of our neighbours. Our interest in this regard is to develop infrastructure and connectivity with our northern neighbour and this is where our participation in OBOR is focused on. We have made this clear on various occasions. And, one thing we all have to understand is that Nepal is not alone participating in OBOR. Several countries from this very region have joined the initiative and working on various projects under it.

Q. There are concerns not just in India but also in many western capitals that China is not following responsible debt financing practices in furthering its OBOR objectives. A very good example is the debt crisis which Sri Lanka is facing because of the loans it received from China. Do you believe the perception that Nepal could also fall into a Chinese debt trap is justified? China already has most infrastructure contracts in Nepal and you have said you want to revive a $ 2.5 billion hydropower project with Beijing.

What we have done under OBOR so far is the conclusion of a framework agreement for possible cooperation. Projects are being identified and once these are finalized, we will start negotiations on terms and conditions of financing arrangement. We will negotiate like any other rational actor guided by what is best in national interest. Every term and condition will be assessed against standards internationally practised as well as followed in our similar agreements with other countries. So, we are clear on the fact that we will accept what will be mutually beneficial, viable and sustainable.

On the question of number of project contracts, we view once again that zero-sum thinking of why country X is doing a certain project not country Y is irrelevant. We have a good number of projects wherein Indian companies are working and we want to have more. Likewise, we have a number of projects wherein companies from China and other countries are working and we want to have more of these as well.

Nepal is a resource-constrained country with huge untapped potentials. Our development needs are huge and people’s expectations are immense. We, therefore, welcome any foreign investment as long as it meets our national interests.

In the context of Nepal-India relations, it would be more constructive to talk about how we can welcome more Indian companies to Nepal and how they can improve their track record of timely completion of projects rather than question on projects from other countries. And, this is what I want to do as the Prime Minister of the country. I want to work on how Nepal can welcome more Indian investment and what my government can do to create a more facilitative environment for Indian investors to go to Nepal and contribute to our growth and development. I invite all, including Indian media, to focus on this positive discourse.

Q. The recent floor test had even some Madhesi parties supporting you. However, you have in the past been seen as anti Madhesis and that’s one reason why authorities in India have been concerned about your government’s policy towards the traditionally marginalised communities. How do you expect to address that issue?

A: It seems your question is misguided and you yourself is in a serious state of confusion on this issue. To portray me as anti- Madhes and Madhesis is ill- motived which I reject firmly and resolutely. I am not a leader of particular place or region or community. I am not confined to a small ring of faith, caste or religion. How can you imagine a leader of a major political party who always thinks of national agenda can be seen as carrying agenda against a particular community or region? This runs counter to my vision for and commitment to national unity and development. I have never thought of discrimination against Medhesis or anybody else. In fact, our Party was the one which had consistently raised the concerns of Madhesis in the past.

Those who have actual knowledge of the reality do appreciate the fact that it was the government under my leadership previously that substantially increased budget for Madhes. Resources were profusely allocated for Terai-based development projects. Postal roads, the potential infrastructural lifeline of Terai, for example, remained unrealized for decades and the actual works started on the ground during my previous tenure in government.

People on the ground knew this track record of how committed I am for Terai’s development and everyone knows the result. In recent general elections, the Left Alliance that we led topped 17 out of 21 Terai districts in counting of the party-wise votes under the proportional representation. I myself come from that region and do understand well what the real problem of the region is. It is the problem of underdevelopment, social backwardness, unemployment and lack of adequate economic activities. And, my government is determined to address these problems. With this mission in mind, Left Alliance has supported the government of the regional parties in province 2 and we will work together for the development interests of the region.

  1. The Pakistan PM visit to Nepal was followed with great interest in India. Would you like to say anything about the agenda for that visit? We understand you discussed reviving the stalled Saarc summit process. Will you urge your counterpart Narendra Modito not block the summit anymore and allow it to be held in Islamabad soon?

A: There is no need to do any over-reading of exchanges of high level visits between countries. It is a part of normal diplomatic relations. Prime Minister Abbasi was on a goodwill visit to Kathmandu. There was no particular substantive agenda. He wanted to convey in person the message of felicitations and greetings on the formation of new Government in Nepal. When we met we discussed various matters of mutual interests and we made this public immediately after the meeting.

SAARC is not the agenda of one country or the other. It is everyone’s agenda in the region. As everyone knows, SAARC was the common initiative of the leaders of the region and we all have been nurturing this platform of regional cooperation for the past 3 decades. We have negotiated, ratified and implemented regional treaties under SAARC and developed elaborate set of institutional mechanisms. And, none of us in the region have ruled out its future. Therefore, when two or more leaders from the region meet, it is quite natural that SAARC may feature as a topic of discussion.

Everyone also knows that the SAARC summit that was supposed to be held in Pakistan in 2016 has been postponed. Nepal, as the current Chair of SAARC, desires to see that we are able to revive the process. However, we are fully aware that this cannot happen unless every SAARC member desires so unanimously.

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