It was the first democratic prime minister of Nepal, BP Koirala, who took the initiative to establish diplomatic relations with Pakistan. Nepal’s outreach to Pakistan was in line with Koirala’s stated policy of strict neutrality in foreign policy conduct, or ‘non-alignment’. Some even speculate that Koirala’s decision to establish diplomatic ties with China and Pakistan, both in 1960, led to his ouster in a royal coup later in that year. Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, in this reading, lent his full support to the dictatorial ambitions of King Mahendra, the coup plotter, to make Koirala pay for the ultimate crime of cozying up to India’s ‘enemies’. It is a different story that King Mahendra would himself later cultivate Pakistan (and China) in order to balance Indian influence in Nepal. This is why, soon after usurping all executive powers, King Mahendra made an official visit in 1961 to Pakistan, where he was widely hailed as a “sagacious statesman”.
Such is the brief history of Nepal-Pakistan relations. With the SAARC in a coma and bilateral trade minimal, Nepal and Pakistan have not had much to discuss in recent times. “This is why the [recent Nepal] visit of Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi so troubles me,” says Keshab Bhattarai, a geopolitical analyst. “What other purpose will it serve save for antagonizing India?”
Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli may have his own calculations in playing host to Abbasi, says Bhattarai, but it is a “risky strategy that could easily backfire”.
But in the view of CPN-UML’s Rajan Bhattarai, who is also the proposed foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Oli, Abbasi’s trip was a simple case of a friend of Nepal wanting to visit and the host government obliging him. In the high-level talks between the two governments during the visit, “we discussed ways to revive SAARC,” he says.
India has not taken kindly to past suggestion of both Nepal and Pakistan that China be inducted as a full SAARC member. Abbasi’s visit, supposedly centered on SAARC, could thus make India suspect Oli’s intent.
There is no reason for such suspicions, argues Bhattarai, the UML leader. “Yes, regional issues were discussed, but we also discussed bilateral matters like boosting trade and exchange of students.” Abbasi invited Oli to visit Pakistan and the Nepali prime minister promised to visit “at a mutually convenient time”, according to Bhattarai. That, in his view, is the long and short of it.
That however won’t stop tongues from wagging long after Abbasi has left Nepal.