Instead of picking favorites, Nepal is on the path to establishing enhanced trilateral diplomatic relations with both giant neighbors, India and China. What has triggered this movement and what is at stake?
How successful will Bhattarai be in maintaining positive ties with both India and China?
It is not for nothing that Nepalese Prime Minister Dr. Baburam Bhattarai sought India’s assistance to conclude the peace process and constitution writing when he met Manmohan Singh in New York in September. Bhattarai is fully aware, as were his predecessors, that India wields great influence in these two areas; by far the most important agenda for Nepal. He is also cognizant of the fact that India likes him personally but not his party - the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). India exercised its utmost clout to prevent the Maoists from coming to power under its chairman, Puspa Kamal Dahal (Prachanda), but has shown extraordinary gestures of welcoming his colleague, Dr. Bhattarai, in the same place. China, on the other hand, is equally pleased to see him leading the new government in Nepal. Educated at an Indian University but a follower of Maoist ideol- ogy, Dr. Bhattarai is the most qualified Prime Minister of Nepal.
Academically close to India but ideologically allied to China, Dr. Bhattarai commands goodwill in both the countries and that is one of the greatest merits for a Nepalese leader to stay in power. Given Nepal’s political reality, he commands unified support of the Madhesh-based parties that easily reflects India’s consent of his rise to supreme leadership. The unspoken
link between India and Madeshi leaders has also come under fire by none other than Bhattarai’s rival, Nepali Congress candidate, Ram Chandra Paudel. Similarly, the willingness on the part of his own colleagues, Puspa Kamal Dahal and Mohan Vaidya, to forward his candidature for premiership reflects the new interest China is openly taking in Nepalese political development.
India avoids being seen as directly interfering in the internal affairs of Nepal as past experiences have proved most counterproductive. But due to security concerns and economic interests, it cannot afford to ignore Nepalese developments. It has therefore taken one step back in its diplomatic business with Nepal. In the same breath, China has also suffered from depending too heavily on only one political force, the monarchy, to protect its interests in Nepal. It has therefore taken one step forward in grappling with Nepalese affairs for the similar reason of security.
Given this, a new chapter of power balance, as far as India and China are concerned, is being written in Nepal. Dr. Bhattarai’s success is mainly incumbent upon the goodwill and cooperation he can garner from India and China rather than from internal forces. In fact, his premiership could be a cause and a result of a new relationship in trilateral diplomatic dynamics. It was a good omen that he was equally welcomed and instantly invited to visit by both neighbors as the chief executive of Nepal, unlike his three predecessors having the commonality of being communist; but one leaning on India and the other two inclining towards China.
Despite differences in political systems, India and China have a common feature of a unified foreign policy. Unlike them, Nepal has developed no such unified image abroad. Nepalese political parties and leaders are collectively, as well as individually, perceived as tilting on either neighbor. India and China can help Nepal stabilize by exercising their influence on political players in their proximity by moderating them at times of high tempers and inter-party tension. So far, foreign powers have only played a negative role in the internal affairs of Nepal and many are waiting to see how they can yield benefits. Dr. Bhattarai is a testament to the new trilateral scenario unfolding in Nepal.
As a quid pro quo to their goodwill and cooperation, Prime Minister Bhattarai will have to consider susceptibility of the neighbors by addressing their security concerns. India’s main thrust is to stop the free movement of terrorists and counterfeit Indian currency from Nepalese territory. It will pressure Nepal to sign the extradition treaty and border agreement as effective measures to achieve this. China’s single concern is the Tibetan refugees who flee to India via Nepal. It has, therefore, offered to bear all cost if Nepal strengthens its northern border to stop this movement. Nepal is surprisingly in a position to effectively help in relieving China’s anxiety without compromising its own security. Nepal’s intelligence and security officials, time and again, have demonstrated efficiency in controlling all illegal and criminal acts designed against its neighbors. However, political instability and weak governance are responsible for frequent failures.
In the emerging new situation, Nepal is on the verge of reaping unprecedented economic dividends from its emerging economic neighbors. Investors from India and China are already competing to exploit the water resources of Nepal, a country barely producing 600 MW out of its potential of 45,000 MW.
Nepal is also suffering from heavy load shedding throughout the year due to shortage in power supply. The Chinese have offered to solve this problem within a period of three years, if given a chance to work in hydro projects in Nepal. Similarly, the state of Bihar is deliberately currying favor with Nepal in order to control the annual damages caused by flooding rivers emanating from Nepal. Bihar, considered the most backward state in India, is of late on a development spree and is extending hands of cooperation to not only Nepal but also China: a phenomenon unheard of until a few decades ago. The writer is a senior journalist and currently associated with Nepal Studies and Research Center.
Gracefully walking the tight rope