Sunday, March 27, 2016

Contending With China’s ‘Nepal Card’

Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli has done well to avoid a sense of triumphalism following his return from a weeklong visit to China. The scope of the agreements the two countries signed in Beijing has largely lived up to the pre-departure hype. Whether they mark a geopolitical shift remains in the realm of speculation, no doubt heightened by China’s own sporadic record in Nepal.
Regardless of whether that history served to temper Oli’s public demeanor, Nepali voices articulating an in-your-face ardor toward India remain unrestrained. One body of opinion has openly thanked India for having imposed a months-long border ‘blockade’ and thereby creating the domestic consensus Oli needed to reorient ties with China.
The more dominant sentiment – that Nepal long needed to diversify its relationship with China in keeping with the times and its own sovereign needs – may sound superficially neutral, but it still contains an anti-Indian tinge by implication.
India has chosen to take the moral high ground in its official reaction, stressing that no other bilateral relationship could ever contain the logic of Nepal-India ties. “[W]e are not in the comparison business,” a spokesman for India’s External Affairs Ministry said. “And even if you are, do ask yourself, is there any other country in the world which can have the kind of relationship that Nepal has with India?”
Other voices inside India are split. Some wonder whether geography, economics, culture, and social realities would ever allow China to substitute India as Nepal’s dominant neighbor. Others are worried that even this superficial advantage accruing to Beijing would be inimical to New Delhi and needed to be considered a harbinger of things to come. Some analysts have openly called for sterner – and more punitive – policies on Nepal, with the opposition even chastising Prime Minister Narendra Modi for having mishandled relations with Nepal.
Nepalis, however, must not bury the reality that China has flashed its “Nepal card”, professing, of course, its expectation that Nepal’s relations with India would continue to grow in the days ahead. After all – as has been often stressed in this space – the longer the Indians and others are preoccupied with deciphering the motives and intentions of the Chinese in Nepal, the better it is for the mandarins up north.
Pledges of benevolence and acts of magnanimity make great international headlines against protracted geopolitical contexts but require low investments. Foreign assistance that comes with no strings attached – touted as the singular tenet of Chinese benevolence – tends to cuts both ways. The donor can delay projects or disbursements or quietly pull out altogether on grounds that may not be anticipated or often explicable to the recipient.
What really counts is what happens when the pedal hits the metal. On that score, the experiences of Bahadur Shah, Bhimsen Thapa, Jang Bahadur and Chandra Shamsher Rana, Birendra and Gyanendra Shah and Pushpa Kamal Dahal become instructive. Admittedly, those were individuals with their own values, attitudes, needs and expectations. Still, they did, to one degree or another, represent Nepal and Nepalis in their dealings with China in the fullness of their times and context.
Any game by definition requires a full-fledged partner willing to play on the established terms. Let’s not go into the dynamics of Sino-India relations and the attendant global realities that might have propelled China to flash its “Nepal card”.
A more prudent way ahead for us would be to anticipate whether, when the going gets tough, Beijing’s penchant for “unsentimental pragmatism” might still entail a full disavowal of Kathmandu’s interpretation of and expectations from the bilateral relationship.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Fuel Pragmatism Or False Promise?

From all the pre-departure buzz, it sounded like everything from the future of the current political dispensation to the fate of Nepal’s existence as an independent and sovereign state depended on the success or failure of Prime Minister Khadka Prasad Oli’s official visit to China.
So it was rather grating to note that Nepal would not be signing that much-touted petroleum agreement with China during the visit. To press home the point, the cabinet minister in charge of that file did not find a place in Oli’s extended entourage.
Amid the strains in relations with India accompanying Oli’s rise to the premiership, Nepal flashed the “China card” with a brazenness that shocked many Nepalis. The Indian ‘blockade’ was mostly about petroleum products being held up on the Birgunj-Raxaul crossing. Whatever trickled in from other border points was pushed from the open to the subterranean market. The people heaved and moaned, but believed in the promise of ultimate liberation from India’s stranglehold.
Not that the ‘China card’ lacked substance. The Oli government publicly proclaimed its intention to import at least one-third of its total petroleum needs from China. When Beijing gave some 100,000 kiloliters of fuel as grant, Nepali tankers wore a festive look to and from the border. India didn’t seem too bothered by our in-your-face mirth.
Beijing seemed hesitant to conclude a full-fledged long-term agreement to export fuel, and began citing such bottlenecks as the harsh geographical terrain, tax matters, and transportation hurdles. We knew all that going in.
Still, the general feeling was that two countries would sign an agreement during the visit of Oli, now that he had backed down from his threat to make Beijing his first port of call as head of government. Following our prime minister’s visit to India in February, fuel supplies from the south eased as the ‘blockade’ mysteriously collapsed.
At the last minute, Nepali news reports, quoting anonymous sources, began suggesting that, although Oli would seek Chinese support to construct fuel storage facilities, the fuel import agreement would take more time. One report had it that India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, who met Oli on the sidelines of a South Asian ministerial meeting in Pokhara, expressed her country’s unhappiness with Nepal’s eagerness to hobnob with China on a subject that was traditionally India’s preserve.
There are promises galore. Nepal would no doubt attempt to secure greater development support from China in such areas as energy, trade, transport, infrastructure and post-earthquake reconstruction. Apart from joining the Silk Road project, Nepal may also agree to review the extradition treaty and help curb more effectively the Free Tibet Movement. If all goes well, President Xi Jinping may even reward us with a visit on his way home after the 8th BRICS summit in New Delhi later in the year.
But returning to the fuel fiasco, regardless of what really happened, isn’t it interesting how easily Beijing gets a pass? The mandarins up north are often heard claiming that New Delhi’s failure to address the ‘strategic autonomy’ of other South Asian nations created a level of friction that could ultimately threaten Chinese interests. But, when conditions are propitious, China’s unsentimental pragmatism also gives it enough space to defer to India’s primacy in region. Some things just don’t change.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Nepali Congress: Message, Messenger and Method

Sher Bahadur Deuba’s election as president of the Nepali Congress marks the first time in almost two decades that the country’s oldest democratic party is devoid of the leadership of a Koirala family member. Less certain is whether the party election has ended the succession battle in the illustrious clan.
Shashank, a son of the legendary party founder and builder B.P. Koirala, has been elected general secretary as the sole family contender for any senior position. A member of of the panel of Deuba opponent Ram Chandra Poudel, Shashank also brings factional balance into the leadership. Of the other two second-generation Koirala claimants, Sujata withdrew her candidacy for the presidency at the last minute. Shekhar will no doubt wield influence as a leading central committee member.
As to ideology, the party still remains in a flux. Commitment to democracy alone won’t take the Nepali Congress very far, especially at a time when even the most extremist organizations on either end of the spectrum officially profess fealty to the concept in order to retain legitimacy and relevance.
Moreover, history and institutional hubris won’t allow the Nepali Congress to rest content in the ranks of the Big Three/Four. Having abandoned its commitment to constitutional monarchy, the party has been trying to hone its personality in a variety of ways, with little success. Despite propitious electoral numbers, the party carries a fraction of its once-formidable influence in the Nepali psyche. In terms of welding the message with the messenger, Shashank’s triumph may be a critical harbinger.
Supporters tout Shashank’s ability to affirm ideological sturdiness on critical causes. Critics attribute his remarkable ascendance purely to lineage. Yet the man seems undaunted. During an interview just ahead of the party convention, he suggested that the Nepali Congress revise its stance on key issues such as monarchy, federalism and secularism. While Shashank has maintained that position since at least 2013, the fact that he won the party general secretaryship so handily after reiterating them cannot be dismissed out of hand.
We can argue endlessly whether B.P. himself would have maintained his much-touted pro-monarchy stance in a political climate that is so radically different today. After all, the Nepali Congress tried to assassinate two kings before B.P. went on to establish his position as the most pro-monarchist critic of the palace toward the twilight of his life.
How far Shashank’s resurrection of B.P.’s latter-day legacy worked to his advantage in the party election is debatable. Certain quarters, however, do seem to take it seriously. United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal warned his cadres against lowering their guard, implicitly citing Shashank’s pre-election comments on BBC Radio’s Nepali Service.
Krishna Prasad Sitaula and Gagan Thapa, whom Deuba and Shashank respectively defeated, admonished the new leadership not to go against the spirit of change that has swept the country. Casting a long shadow on such comments is no doubt Khum Bahadur Khadka, the last surviving member of the BP-led quartet that alighted from that flight from India four decades ago with the policy of national reconciliation. Khadka, while silent on the monarchy, has become a leading advocate for the restoration of Hindu statehood. His emergence as a powerful Deuba ally in the party will remain a significant factor.
For now, the focus of attention is on whether there may be a change in the government. A rejuvenated Nepali Congress, as the largest party in the elected assembly, would have a justifiable claim to the premiership. By exuding political magnanimity and allowing the Oli government to continue for a while, the party might get the time it needs to fully grasp the generational and factional transitions within.
Either way, the emergence of the new Nepali Congress line-up offers a new opportunity for a sobering analysis of the tumultuous post-April 2006 trajectory.