KATHMANDU- After a long wait, Prime Minister Puspa Kamal Dahal is set to embark on a four-day official visit to India on May 31. This visit holds immense significance as it was declared as his top priority upon assuming office for the third time, albeit in a tumultuous political landscape. Initially supported by KP Sharma Oli, Dahal soon separated from him and formed an alliance with Sher Bahadur Deuba. Now, the government is expediting preparations to ensure the ‘success’ of this visit.
Before the formal announcement of the trip, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) initiated consultations with former foreign ministers, foreign secretaries, and foreign affairs experts to set the agendas for the visit. Foreign Minister Narayan Prasad Saud has been selectively seeking input, carefully considering the recommendations put forth.
To understand PM Dahal’s visit, it is essential to examine it from three perspectives: Domestic adversaries, external challenges, and agenda-wise.
Firstly, considering the domestic adversaries, Dahal’s capacity to exercise power is severely constrained. Despite a parliamentary majority, he is arguably the weakest Prime Minister in 17 years since the country’s switch to a federal democratic republic. Consequently, while India will respect him as the Prime Minister of a sovereign neighboring nation, it will also take into account Nepal’s divided mandate. Dahal’s visit may be perceived as lacking the ability to represent the national conscience and psyche adequately.
Secondly, Dahal’s term as PM is fixed for an initial two years as per a gentlemen’s agreement. Sher Bahadur Deuba, the chairman of the largest party in the ruling alliance, is next in line for the premiership. The last one year has been allocated to Madhav Kumar Nepal of the Nepal Socialist Party, which broke away from the CPN-UML. This distribution of the five-year term limits the extent to which any foreign counterpart, government, or party can fully support and collaborate with a PM during his tenure. Although Indian officials may not explicitly convey this, it will inevitably influence every meeting and interaction.
Thirdly, the infamous fake Bhutanese refugees’ scandal has impacted national image. Nepal, proud of its history of never being colonized, has now been affected by acts of treason and organized crime. Consequently, these factors will subtly influence PM Dahal’s meeting with his Indian counterpart.
Despite these domestic adversaries, the PM can collectively represent national self-confidence and sentiments by engaging with opposition leaders. He can emphasize that his visit to India is guided by a list of common agendas supported by all Nepali parties and stakeholders.
Turning to external adversaries, India is not only our neighbor but also an emerging Asian power and a global strategic player. India maintains ‘’strategic partnerships’’ with the United States, ‘engages’ with Russia as it has done since the time of Indira Gandhi, and balances ‘conflicting and coordinated’ roles with China. Under the ‘neighbor first’ policy, Nepal is given priority, although relatively lesser when compared to global powers such as the USA, Russia, China, and other regional players. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known to be one of the busiest leaders globally, further reinforcing the need for realistic expectations regarding the extent of India’s focus on Nepal.
Furthermore, the inclusion of the China factor in the preparations for the Indian visit has added complexity to the dynamics. PM Dahal himself recently revealed that he had received an invitation to attend the BOAO Forum for Asia, but it was abruptly canceled following consultation with the Chinese ambassador. The sudden change in the Chinese government’s decision to invite and then withdraw the invitation raises questions about the ongoing Nepal-China relations. The PM must understand that, when planning a visit to India, it is important to refrain from bringing China into the discourse or involving Beijing in his plans, and vice-versa. Some Previous Nepali PMs have made the mistake of either excessively engaging with neighboring powers or displaying an inferiority complex. A sovereign PM should have the confidence to exercise power independently, regardless of the size or development level of other countries.
Equally sensitive and significant is the decision regarding which country should a PM visit first. Typically, the visit of a PM is determined on the bases of agendas and necessities. If the PM can explain the reason behind choosing a particular country for his first foreign trip, that decision should be fully supported. The question of the PM’s first foreign visit to India has not been raised because there are numerous issues that need to be resolved between the two countries. However, it is not the time to choose one country over the other; it is time to maintain a ‘relative balance’ considering the strong historical and multifaceted relations and contributions both countries have made to Nepal. It is important to understand that Nepal-India relations cannot be compared with Nepal-China relations and vice-versa as they have different dynamics.
The third aspect to consider is the agenda. Nepal should not approach foreign visits with an extensive shopping list. Instead, Nepal should prioritize projects based on the nation’s needs, with a focus on completing previously agreed-upon projects. Nepal should also raise border issues and seek to resolve them through diplomatic negotiations. In such sensitive matters, there is no need for a display of pseudo-nationalism. If Prime Minister Dahal has mentioned raising the issue of the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) and borders, it should not be for public consumption. Apart from border issues, there are no other genuine problems between the two countries. Perceived problems largely stem from misunderstandings that need to be addressed. The leaders of both the countries should move away from this ‘perceptional enmity’. Nepali leaders should refrain from involving India in their domestic issues, and India should respect Nepal’s internal affairs. This change is necessary because the era of political extremism is now over.
Diplomatic relations between the two countries should be assessed on the basis of mutual respect and mutual benefit. Since diplomacy is not a zero-sum game, both countries should strive for a win-win situation. Nepal can expect support from India, an emerging leader in Asia and an influential neighbor, based on the principle of ‘’non-reciprocity’ ‘as outlined in the ‘Gujral Doctrine’ by former Indian Prime Minister IK Gujaral.
During PM Dahal’s visit, several agreements can be signed, and commitments to diplomatic negotiations for problem-solving can be made. However, the most crucial aspect of all is to bridge trust deficits between the two countries and strive to build a relationship on the basis of renewed trust.
This article first appeared in The Annapurna Express.