Foreign policy is but an extension of domestic policy, goes an old Bismarckian saying. The current Nepali regime found the axiom relevant enough to include in its new foreign policy document. But in our case, could the opposite be as true? Could Nepal’s domestic politics be but an extension of its foreign policy?
India has had a major—if not the decisive—role in each of contemporary Nepal’s major political changes. Back in the late 1940s, without the Indians getting worried about the prospect of the communist China gobbling up Nepal (after Tibet), perhaps it would not have given refuge to King Tribhuvan and backed Nepali democratic forces against the reigning Ranas. The 1989 border blockade had a big role in the removal of absolute monarchy in 1990. Pretty much the same story of active Indian intervention has been repeated in more recent times.
New Delhi set the terms of the 2005 12-point agreement—the precursor to all recent progressive changes. In 2015, India blatantly intervened in Nepal’s constitutional process, pushing the Nepali prime minister into China’s open arms. This marked the start of China’s unprecedented sway in Nepal. In fact, whenever Kathmandu has felt threatened by the south, it has invariably looked north for succor.
The Nepali Congress internalized the ideals of independent India’s founders and the party has since had a soft spot for the largest democracy in the world. Nepali communists, naturally, borrowed heavily from Chinese and Soviet Marxists. Now they are in thrall to a faux-communist capitalist state. It says much that the Nepal Communist Party might not have existed without the Chinese looking for a new permanent friend in Nepal. Having invested so much, China has also sought to actively shape Nepali politics, much like India has done for all these years.
Nepali monarchy survived for so long following its restoration in 1950 because it was mighty useful to China. It died partly because its existence started threatening core Indian interests. The precariously placed, landlocked country has thus had to chop and change its institutions and politics in tune with changing Indian and Chinese interests.
Look at our important national issues today: Kalapani, high-speed rail, hydropower development, tourism, remittance—they all depend on outside actors, mostly India and China. Nepali elections are won by demonizing India; the government formed thereafter tries to cover its incompetence by appeasing China.
Isolated in his own party, KP Oli is again looking to secure his twin chairs by cultivating the Indians. But the rest of the NCP is still firmly in the Chinese camp. Nepali Congress, meanwhile, has taken upon itself to push the American MCC compact. In one way or the other, our domestic political actors are inviting foreign meddling as befits them.
In this cloudy climate, it is impossible to gauge whether domestic politics influences foreign relations or vice versa. For instance, is Oli reaching out to India to save his chair? Or it is a case of India wanting to mend bridges with Oli, an old (if estranged) friend, as China tightens its grip on Nepal? China stitched up the NCP and now wants to forestall its split, an effort with as yet unclear ramifications for Nepal.
In this interconnected world, it is hard for any country to remain unaffected by outside developments. But Nepal, primarily by the virtue of its unique geography, remains more vulnerable to foreign headwinds.