Sell-out or buy-in?

People's Review - - COMMENTARY - BY MAILA BAJE

Prime Min­is­ter Sher Ba­hadur Deuba prob­a­bly ex­pected the ‘sell-out' slur well be­fore he de­liv­ered his con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment as­sur­ance at the joint news con­fer­ence with his host, Naren­dra Modi, in New Delhi the other day. If not the con­sti­tu­tion, our pre­mier's crit­ics would have found some­thing else to quib­ble with. Even be­fore de­part­ing Kath­mandu, Deuba must have taken some re­as­sur­ance in Modi's own dis­com­fort. With Dok­lam hav­ing de­fined Nepalis as­pi­ra­tions and ex­as­per­a­tions vis-à-vis Deuba's visit, Modi couldn't have af­forded to take a hard line. Any sig­nif­i­cant soft­en­ing on Nepal was also out of the ques­tion, given the pres­sure the In­dian prime min­is­ter faced from his na­tion's for­eign-pol­icy hy­per­re­al­ists. So Modi was left with play­ing with the op­tics. And the In­dian prime min­is­ter did con­jure up new visu­al­iza­tions. Modi's un­sched­uled warmup meet­ing with Deuba – after hav­ing dis­patched Ex­ter­nal Af­fairs Min­is­ter Sushma Swaraj to the air­port to wel­come the guest – gave Nepalis good rea­son to be­gin scratch­ing their heads. Swaraj's im­promptu wa­ter-glass gig fur­ther elevated style over sub­stance, which the In­di­ans no doubt found handy in draw­ing the at­ten­tion of the Chi­nese. Sub­se­quent news cov­er­age sug­gested that Nepal-China re­la­tions fig­ured promi­nently dur­ing bi­lat­eral talks in Delhi. If so, it's un­likely that the In­di­ans ex­pressed sat­is­fac­tion over Nepal's suc­cess in di­ver­si­fy­ing good-neigh­bor­li­ness. They would have com­mended us pub­licly if that was how they felt. It's more like that they ad­mon­ished us in pri­vate. Don't try to punch above your weight over the Dok­lam open­ing, fel­las, or some such vari­a­tion. Nepal is in no bet­ter shape than Bhutan when it comes to with­er­ing un­der two wrestling be­he­moths. Not­with­stand­ing the ex­ter­nal bon­homie, vis­it­ing Chi­nese Vice Pre­mier Wang Yang's pri­vate mes­sage ear­lier in the month couldn't have been much dif­fer­ent, ex­cept for an ad­di­tional ad­mo­ni­tion on the folly of fall­ing into a maze of Trumpian un­pre­dictabil­ity. Did Nepal need such rep­ri­mands? Even if we did take sides on Dok­lam, it's not likely that we would have re­in­forced our sen­ti­ment with mil­i­tary or other such pow­er­ful un­der­pin­nings. Sure, we could main­tain a pi­ous diplo­matic pos­ture mal­leable enough for ev­ery­one. But, then, how much room do we re­ally have to stretch our­selves? So it's all about self-preser­va­tion. Call it equidis­tance, equiprox­im­ity or what else you will, we're in the lit­tle league. That doesn't mean we don't have op­tions. Was it a co­in­ci­dence that Nepal used Deuba's visit to In­dia to let it be known that it was plan­ning to ask China to ex­tend its Shi­gatse rail­way line upto Kath­mandu via Kerung. Lest you dis­miss this as an­other in­stance of the beg­gar try­ing be the chooser, Nepal in­tends to back up its re­quest on the ground that the pro­posed rail­way falls un­der the con­cept of China's Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive (BRI). Trans­la­tion: Nepal took a great risk in join­ing the BRI and needs to show some­thing for it. Sell-out?Nah. Sounds more like a buy-in.

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