Images twirled of an era when monarchs, presidents and prime ministers – from countries near and far – graced Kathmandu on a fairly regular basis during the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
During those decades, we were not – by any definition – a democracy. Political parties – the lifeblood of an open political system – stood proscribed. Anything approximating an organized challenge to the partyless regime then in place was forbidden. Nepal was a firm administrative state – with the palace at the apex – and one that worked well in establishing its presence in the international community.
Statesmen like French President Francois Mitterrand (1983) and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl (1986) visited us as did figureheads like Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II (1961 and 1986) and Spain’s King Juan Carlos (1987).
Leaders like Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia (1974) and Nicholas Ceausescu of Romania (1987) may not have been ideal dignitaries of their time. But their visits did underscore Nepal’s established place within the confines of the raging East-West rivalries.
Indian and Chinese presidents and prime ministers were more frequent visitors. The arrival and departure of foreign ministers of those two nations – as of other nations – were noteworthy events, but not the kind of epochal ones those of their modern-day successors are made out to be.
It was a different world then, you might say. True. But the era had its own set of geo-strategic challenges, which Nepal managed to navigate commendably. The world’s two largest democracies were at loggerheads. Its two communist giants were in an even greater state of enmity. Yet they built our roads and factories.
Today Nepal is a democracy, albeit one struggling to find its berth. Not only are the democracies philosophically on the same side. Authoritarian regimes that shun their own people are actively encouraging Nepalis to hold free elections. The world gives a premium to democracy – or at least the quest for it – as a basic etiquette of international engagement.
In secrecy and under cover of darkness, presidents and prime ministers land in danger zones to convey their commitment to rebuilding places like Afghanistan and Iraq. But here we are in virtual wilderness, as far as foreign dignitaries are concerned.
To be sure, the international community continues to affirm our non-failure as a state. The sanctification of questionable consensus, generous disbursement of assistance and copious expressions of goodwill all come under the rubric of the international community. Yet individual countries that matter do not want their fingerprints here. When that odd dignitary does happen to arrive (Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in 2012), we treat him with shabbiness directly attributable to the sordidness our politics has acquired. Mercifully, the Indians still consider us worthy of their foreign minister and not within the ambit of their home minister.
In a way, you can’t blame foreign leaders for so studiously seeking to avoid us. As Nepal gropes for a nebulous newness, no one wants to be seen interfering with this seemingly interminable process. Amid our polarized politics, action and inaction have their share of supporters and detractors. What is genial counsel to one man is gratuitous intrusion to another.
In varying degrees, normal nations have their own challenges of exclusion, exploitation, marginalization and machination. In attempting to narrow those negatives, nations ordinarily do not lose sight of what works to unite them and propels them to forge ahead. The principal international stakeholders probably think it best that we figure that basic lesson ourselves.
To us, ‘unity in diversity’ may still be reminiscent of an autocratic era’s clarion call. But its enduring rationality is established by the reality that Nepal cannot return to becoming a constellation of microstates between two regional behemoths, just because we cherish the fullest devolution possible. Indeed, those in the past who stretched nationalistic sloganeering too far bear much responsibility for the fraying of our basic cohesion. Those who sought to denigrate the imperative of commonness by incessantly playing up our divisions are today paying the price for their shortsightedness.
Ultimately, foreign visitors – regardless of rank, temperament or predilection – will continue to push their respective national interests. Nepal just needs to be Nepal first.