Thursday, February 27, 2014

Under-estimating the potential

Monarchy has given way to democracy in Nepal. But the executive head of the world's largest democracy has chosen not to be an enthusiastic enough part of the great political transition taking place right next door

Last month, at a reception at the Embassy of Nepal in New Delhi, I asked Nepal’s visiting interim Minister of Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs, Mr Madhav P Ghimire, if he, on behalf of Mr Khil Raj Regmi, the Chairman of Nepal’s Council of Ministers, had extended an invitation to the Indian Prime Minister to visit Kathmandu. Mr Ghimire said he did, and that he was also visibly impressed with the warmth he received in New Delhi for his handling of the second Constituent Assembly election in Nepal.

Right after his visit, Press reports suggested that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was willing to visit Kathmandu after the new Government there had been formed. This would be a path-breaking step. It would certainly do some long-overdue damage control for India-Nepal relations. India has maintained a long-standing apathy towards its northern neighbour, especially in terms of high-level diplomatic and political engagement.

On occasions, the leadership and citizens of Nepal have wondered when the Indian Prime Minister will make an official visit to their country, otherwise considered to be a most strategic neighbour. For decades, Nepal has awaited a visit by an Indian Prime Minister, but India’s Ministry of External Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office have been slow to respond.

It is also bizarre that ceremonial trips by the Indian President too have been on hold. Yet such visits would have helped give bilateral ties a much-needed level playing field. That Nepal’s own political establishment has been on a roller-coaster ride itself, not to mention is still fragile, has only made the whole scenario more precarious.

In New Delhi, the South Block routes its resources and infrastructure in a manner that overlooks the genuine expectations from its immediate neighbours. This is particularly shocking when one takes into account the fact that Nepal’s front rank leadership has always preferred its southern neighbour as its most trusted destination. It is true that there was an increased favour for China when a radical Government was at the helm in Nepal. This had also evoked some strong reactions in New Delhi. But with the extremist regime now a spent force, the ice has melted in no time.

The visit of Maoist Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, popularly known as Prachanda, to Beijing before he travelled New Delhi, in 2008, offended India and supposedly resulted in his premature ouster from office. He was replaced by his deputy Baburam Bhattarai. An alumnus of an Indian university, Mr Bhattarai did not repeat the follies of his predecessor and brought back the bonhomie back between the two countries.

Sans that one hiccup with Prachanda, Nepal’s Prime Ministers have always naturally leaned towards India. This should have been acknowledged and reciprocated from the Indian side. Inder Kumar Gujral was the last Indian Prime Minister to make an official visit to Nepal in June 1997. In the 17 years since then, no such gesture has been made by his successors. As Prime Minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee also came to Kathmandu in January 2002, but that was to attend the 11th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.

Yet, as far back as February 1991, during then Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar’s visit to Nepal, both sides had agreed to form a high-level task force to preparing a programme of cooperation under the Nepal-India Joint Commission. But on the unofficial side, this long friend of Nepal also faced the wrath of the masses in the Himalayan nation for his anti-monarchy stand. Still, it must be admitted that Chandra Shekhar had shown enthusiasm on issues concerning Nepal, and this had produced some results. In 1990, though, he was an unpopular person for the average Nepali for whom the king was dear.

Things have drastically changed in the last two decades. The monarchy has given way to a democracy. But the executive head of the world’s largest democracy has chosen not be part of a great political transition taking place right next door. On the contrary, in the past 14 years, all Nepali Prime Ministers except Mr Jhalanath Khanal have visited New Delhi. The former Indian Ambassador to Nepal, Mr Jayant Prasad, termed the long gap in visit by an Indian Prime Minister as unnatural. However, he stressed that the delay could be due to the turmoil and political transition in Kathmandu since 1996.

It is equally surprising that like India, China too hasn’t shown interest in a Kathmandu visit by its Premier. The last Chinese Prime Minister to visit Nepal was Zhu Rongji in May 2001. On this count, China has matched India. When Mr Manmohan Singh received an ailing Girija Prasad Koirala at the airport in 2006, he accorded respect to this towering democrat of South Asia. Mr Singh should come to Kathmandu again, as Nepal is unlikely to have a high calibre leader like Koirala for whom the Indian Prime Minister can softly break protocol.
-Atul K Thakur
(Published in The Pioneer on February10,2014)

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