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No trust, no credibility

No trust, no credibility
Nepal is a text-book example of how a messy domestic policy paralyzes the external policy. The country has been caught in chronic political instability since 1990. There was a glimmer of hope for stability after Nepal promulgated a new constitution in 2015 and held its  first general elections in 2017. It was not to be. Even when two key communist parties—CPN-UML and CPN(Maoist) Center—came together in 2018 to form the erstwhile Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and the most powerful government in the modern history of Nepali politics, stability proved elusive for Nepal.  Whatever hopes and optimisms people had were shattered when the NCP suffered a split. In fact, the situation got worse after the party breakup, as the prime minister at the time, KP Sharma Oli of UML, tried to dissolve a democratically elected parliament. The singular mission of all major political parties in Nepal has been to grab power by any means. They are ready to compromise their political values and ideologies and align with any party, so long as they can rule the roost.

Good governance, service delivery, economic development and effective foreign policy have never been on their priority list. It is no secret that Nepal’s political parties see international relations through the prism of party interests. That is why they have no qualms about putting on hold important issues related to major countries.

When it comes to the conduct of foreign policy, a key problem that Nepal faces today is from the government itself. The recent governments have all come in the form of rainbow coalitions, of parties representing various ideologies and worldviews. They cannot find a common ground when it comes to foreign policy. As general elections in November last year delivered more fractured verdict, as not a single party could muster a simple majority. In such a case, four to five parties have to come together in order to form a government. It is hopeless to expect such a government to deliver both on national and international fronts. There are just too many clashing interests and ideologies. Already, the current dispensation under Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal is losing its popularity. It could collapse anytime if the fringe parties in the coalition were to pull out their support. Every major party in Nepal has its own opinion on how the country should conduct its foreign policy and diplomatic relations. Take a small but meaningful issue that is mentioned in the Common Minimum Program of the current government. While preparing the document, there were differences among the ruling parties on the issue of border disputes. While the Nepali Congress wanted to clearly mention the alleged border dispute with China, the CPN (Maoist Center) wanted to leave China out. Finally, the two parties agreed to mention in the document that border disputes with neighbors will be resolved through diplomatic channels. No names were named, neither China nor India, with whom Nepal shares contested boundaries. It is a clear indication that the political parties in Nepal do not take the border issue seriously. They would rather avoid bringing up the issue at all, lest it should create a controversy. There is also a huge gulf between Nepali Congress and communist parties on how to deal with India, US and China. They fear that taking a clear and firm position will spoil the party relationship with these countries. Here is another example of Nepal’s messy foreign policy. Nepal sent Foreign Minister NP Saud to attend King Charles’ recent coronation ceremony after President Ram Chandra Poudel canceled his visit owing to his illness. Most of the countries had sent their heads of state or government to the event, but the Nepal government chose to send the foreign minister. It didn’t even consider sending the Vice President. Over the past few years, foreign direct investment is dwindling. As political stability is nowhere in sight, and successive governments have failed to improve legal and procedural hurdles to attract foreign investment. Though the government is preparing to convene an investment summit, it is unlikely to bring any changes. Unless there is an improvement in Nepal’s political atmosphere, foreign investors are not going to make investments in Nepal. Foreign countries have no trust in Nepal’s system, nor its institutions. That is why an increasing number of foreign ambassadors are seen meeting ministers, secretaries and politicians to get things done and to convey their message. And there is a huge gap between what our politicians tell foreign diplomats and what they do in practice. Nepali political parties and their leaders have been known to trump up fear of foreign invasion among the masses by deliberately mischaracterizing foreign-led programs. The US Millennium Challenge Corporation is a case in point. Some politicians took separate positions in the street and in meetings with American officials on the issue of endorsing the program through Parliament. Recently, a Kathmandu-based senior diplomat said that Nepali politicians speak one thing and do the other. With the ongoing Bhutanese refugee scam, the infamy of Nepal and Nepali political parties will further deepen. The Ministry of Home Affairs, which is one of the important ministries, is caught in the scandal. Former home minister Balkrishna Khand is facing investigation in a grand fraud incident, where hundreds of Nepalis were swindled of millions of rupees by promising to send them to the US as Bhutanese refugees. A former home secretary has also been implicated in the scam. The incident has tarnished the image of the ministry. In this scenario, how can we convince the foreign powers that their secrecy is maintained and their security interests are protected? We do not have an immediate solution to the political instability because the parties are not ready to amend the constitution and change the electoral system. Does it mean foreign policy will have to suffer even more in the coming years?  We can reduce the damages if we are serious about building institutions and systems. The Office of the Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other institutions need to mend ways. Similarly, major parties should immediately shun the policy of exploiting the issues related to other countries to advance their interests. So far, they have shown no signs of improving their conduct. To deal with complex geopolitical situations, Nepal needs vibrant state institutions, but we are experiencing just the opposite. Our state intuitions are turning dysfunctional and they are losing their credibility.