Monday, February 01, 2016

Hissy Fit Or Bold Diplomacy?

It had to come to this, didn’t it?
Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli threatens to make China his first official port of call if India failed to lift its ‘blockade’ against Nepal.
Okay, not quite threatens. In effect, however, normalization of situation along the southern border has been advanced as a pre-condition for our premier’s maiden trip to New Delhi, if we are to go by ruling CPN-UML official Surya Thapa.
Now, we don’t know how or when exactly it became a matter of convention for a new Nepali prime ministers to travel to India on his first trip abroad. But the practice has held – or at least is expected to be so. Upon assuming office in 2008 amid fanfare, Maoist Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ broke that practice as part of his overall Doctrine of Discontinuation. We know how that turned out for him.
Dahal tried twisting himself into a pretzel explaining how his first official visit had indeed been to India, Beijing merely having happened to be the host of that quadrennial’s Olympic Games. In New Delhi, the big hug his counterpart, Manmohan Singh, gave turned out to be fatal for Dahal. The Maoist head honcho was soon out the door – and seemingly for good.
UML official Thapa, however, has covered his bases well, stressing that Prime Minister Oli has high regards for Indo-Nepal relations. He reminded us of the chronology of things. Shortly after taking charge about four months ago, Oli had a telephonic conversation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who invited him to visit India.
However, if the Indians failed to show a gesture of good neighborliness, Oli’s trip to China as his first foreign destination was inevitable – also for logistical reasons. Because the day Oli spoke with Modi, Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Wu Chuntai also called on the premier and handed him an invitation.
Protocol – if not precedence – might dictate that Oli visit India first. However, there was pressure on Oli from his party not to visit India first as long as the “unexpected and unimaginable” situation at the border persisted. As a good democrat, Oli could not in good conscience go against the party.
In fact, Oli himself had told a group of reporters that it would not be appropriate for him to visit India before the border ‘blockade’ was lifted. The Indians, for their part, officially shrugged off suggestions that Kathmandu had officially made such a linkage.
The latest Nepali contention – affirmed by another UML leader, Shankar Pokharel – contradicted what Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa had said upon his return from China late last year. Not only would Oli visit India first, Kamal Thapa said, but the premier would sign some agreements to implement past understandings.
So here’s what we can safely conclude. Nepal is flashing the ‘China card’ to end the Indian ‘blockade’. Is this a hissy fit or bold diplomacy? Time will tell.
It would be great to see Oli visit both India and China, irrespective of the order. Even one trip – regardless of where – would be good enough. Let’s just hope that Oli doesn’t have to leave office before having visited either neighbor.