Hindustan Times (New Delhi, 19 August 2018) – Nepal sent its foreign minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali to pay homage to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee after his death on Friday. Gyawali, a senior leader of the ruling Nepal Communist Party and a close aide to Prime Minister KP Oli, spoke to Prashant Jha about Vajpayee’s contribution to India-Nepal ties, as well as the shifting dynamics of the bilateral relationship. Excerpts from the interview:
You came to pay your respects to Atal Bihari Vajpayee. What was his contribution to India-Nepal ties?
Atalji was a deeply respected figure not only in India but across South Asia and the world. He had a deep spiritual relationship with Nepal. I don’t only mean it in the sense of religion, but he used to view Nepal-India ties within the framework of the broader South Asian civilisational framework. Nepal has lost a really close and respected friend. He dealt with Nepal in three capacities – as Prime Minister, as external affairs minister, and as a politician. He was always magnanimous. He was sensitive to Nepal’s interests. And he was conscious that Nepal and India should progress together.
When Vajpayee was PM, Nepal was in the middle of a civil war but soon after we saw a peace process. Do you think the roots of the peace process – when the Maoists and the democratic parties came together – were planted during his term?
It was a time when the armed conflict in Nepal had peaked. Two rounds of peace talks had failed. The Indian government, at that point, began recognising that if the conflict deepens and Nepal gets embroiled in it further, there would be implications beyond the Nepal border and so it should get resolved politically. There is no specific documentation of the official position on this yet.
But we have a sense that Vajpayee believed that if this problem got resolved, it would be best for not only Nepal but also India.
Vajpayee belonged to a generation of politicians who had deep personal links with Nepali leaders. On the Nepali side, there were leaders like Girija Prasad Koirala and Manmohan Adhikari who knew Indian politicians personally. Do you think this personal connect at the political level has dipped in recent times?
This is true. A deep and personal relationship developed between leaders during the Indian freedom struggle, Nepal’s democratic movement, and the period after the royal coup in Nepal in 1960 when Nepali leaders lived in exile in India.
But it is not possible to have such relationships forever – every era has its own necessities. But we need to compensate for this in two ways.
The personal relationships need to give way to a larger legal and institutional framework so that ties don’t get affected by the whims of any individual; that they are dictated by fair guidelines; that they have solid foundations. We are also bound in a way which is both deeply intimate and also generates friction. It has multi-dimensional aspects.
We need to strengthen the foundations of trust. This can be achieved through frequent visits and exchanges, respecting each other’s sensitivities, and developing an attitude which places mutual growth and interdependence at the centre of our vision.
This can help us fill the vacuum left by the generation that had deep personal ties. In the meantime, people-to-people ties have many elements now in this era of open societies. We can create networks at the level of cultural, intellectual forums, business, media, which can fill in for the warmth lost by the passing away of such dignitaries.
Is the traditional Nepal-India ‘special relationship’ then becoming a more professional relationship?
Yes, this is true. ‘Special relationship’ had many connotations and created some illusions. Among Nepalis, there were growing doubts if ‘special relationship’ meant that our relationship was uneven, if there were questions on sovereign equality, and if it had a security element. It was sometimes defined that way.
There was an effort by certain elements within Nepal to drag India or certain elements within India to push it into internal issues of Nepal, and this generated complexities. This perspective led to ups and downs. So in that sense, it is necessary to have professional relations. But having said that, the fact is our relationship is diverse and unique and nothing can replace that.
So you prefer the word ‘unique’ to ‘special’?
Yes, I prefer using the word ‘unique’. Very few countries have an open border spanning 1700 kms. There is such an expansive and deep personal cross-border relationship in terms of cultural, religious, economic, marital ties. But it would not be practical to use the term ‘special’ to denote a political or strategic relationship.
Vajpayee was from the Bharatiya Janata Party. Even today, India has a BJP government. Nepal has a unified communist party leading the government, which you represent. Does the different ideological worldview affect ties?
It does not matter. Ever since the end of the Cold War, the ideological factor has eroded in international relations. States look at trade and economic factors, security, and diaspora and its image as key variables.
Globally, ideology is not very prevalent. Also, every country has its own system. If we believe in democracy, we have to respect the mandate of the sovereign people of that country. In India, the electorate has chosen a strong BJP government.
In Nepal, the electorate has chosen Left forces. And finally, it is better to focus on convergence rather than divergence. We also share broader South Asian values. Our ideologies should not have an impact on ties.
A key concern in Indian foreign policy vis-à-vis Nepal remains China. You have good relations with your northern neighbour. India-China ties have also improved recently. Does this give you more space? How do you see this triangular relationship?
Nepal has an independent foreign policy as an independent, sovereign country. The main thrust is amity with all, enmity with none. We have told both our neighbours we want to benefit from your economic growth. We have no global or regional ambitions.
Our ambition is limited to the fact that we want rapid economic growth to make up for the lost decades of conflict and political transition. This is not possible without deepening our connectivity, trade, investment, tourism, people-to-people relationship with you in a comprehensive manner and benefiting from your growth.
While doing this, you have no reason to doubt us. We have, under a consistent policy, never allowed our soil to be used against you. We will respect your genuine concerns.
But we cannot allow relations to improve or dip with one at the cost of the other. This is our starting point.
We are very hopeful of the increased exchange and contact and understanding between India and China. This is not only instrumental for regional stability and prosperity but also in the global context, where unpredictability has increased in the area of trade in goods and services, where there is growing obstruction in the movement of people, and where the international order seems shaken. The improvement in India-China ties will have a far-reaching impact. Nepal can benefit from this.