Sunday, September 02, 2012

Reading Baburam In Tehran

When Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai departed for Tehran leading the Nepali delegation to the summit of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), it finally seemed like he had begun to walk the walk.
Having penned an impassioned op-ed in a leading daily days earlier on the need for Nepal to pursue a foreign policy that genuinely served the national interest, Dr. Bhattarai faced an immediate test.
The Americans did not want him to go to Iran, desiring that Nepal leave its participation at the 16th summit at a lower level. Clearly, the greater the number of heads of state or government who stayed away from Tehran, the better it would be for Washington’s decades-long bipartisan campaign to isolate the Islamic Republic.
Nevertheless, Dr. Bhattarai was under tremendous pressure from the other side, too. India, which has maintained its own extensive relationship with Iran seemingly without undermining New Delhi’s strategic partnership with Washington, wanted to see Dr. Bhattarai in Tehran.
Since Nepal, as a founding member of the NAM, would ordinarily have been expected to attend the summit at the highest level, the Indian angle did not assume much prominence or controversy.
In his speech at the summit, Dr. Bhattarai generally reiterated Nepal’s traditional stands on international issues. He spoke of the need for forging a new global economic order based on equitable distribution of the available resources in the world. “We in Nepal are in favor of open, rules-based, equitable, predictable and non-discriminatory trading as well as financial and monetary systems,” he said.
The prime minister also urged the delegates to commit to make NAM “a voice for the voiceless and a power for the powerless” – hardly a departure from traditional Nepali foreign policy tenets. In signing on to the Tehran Declaration, in which the NAM countries agreed that a nuclear energy program for peaceful purpose is the inseparable right of a nation, Dr. Bhattarai, like the other signatories, reiterated common sense.
Dr. Bhattarai, in his own words, had said he was traveling to Iran to project and promote Nepal’s active nonaligned policy to the world. By the time he returned home, however, we learned that he might not have quite achieved that.
At the center of the latest controversy to hit Nepal’s most-educated premier are the circumstances surrounding his meeting with his Indian counterpart. Dr. Bhattarai disappeared for over an hour for what he later told reporters was a one-on-one meeting with Dr. Manmohan Singh. Foreign Minister Narayan Kaji Shrestha, a fellow vice-chairman of the prime minister’s party, had no prior intimation of the meeting. The Indian prime minister, it later emerged, had his complement of advisers and aides.
Although Dr. Bhattarai briefed reporters on his talks, what the two premiers really discussed remains in the realm of wide speculation. Our prime minister’s version of the talks could not be independently corroborated, an imperative Maila Baje believes that gained much more significance in view of Dr. Bhattarai’s early insistence that it was a one-on-one meeting.
All this fueled suggestions that Dr. Bhattarai and Dr. Singh may have reached another written or unwritten accord/understanding/protocol that, by the meeting’s very ostensible secrecy, might not be to Nepal’s advantage.
Seeking to assuage members of his delegation, Dr. Bhattarai sought to highlight his compulsions for the apparent clandestineness. His originally scheduled meeting with Dr. Singh, after all, had been called off and the two delegations were pressed for time.
Yet by failing to explain that to members of the delegation – or at least those closest to him – beforehand exposed the prime minister to much grief. Also unclear is whether Dr. Bhattarai in any way pressed his interlocutors on unnatural circumstances of the meeting and its possible fallout back home.
Someone who has so recently been on the receiving end of selective and convenient Indian leaks of supposedly secret confabulations and communications might have been more careful of his actions. But Dr. Bhattarai, upon his return, has adopted the posture of someone who feels confident enough of handling his internal critics as long as his external patrons are steadfast in their support.
Maybe the Americans were on to something.