Evidently, following in the footsteps of the majority of his predecessors as prime minister, the foreign policy of Sher Bahadur Deuba too is mostly based on expediency. After nearly two months in office, he is yet to appoint a foreign minister. His recent actions suggest a tilt to the south, as he soft peddles the drowning of a Nepali national by the Indian border force and the flying of Indian military choppers over Nepali territory. He has also formed a committee, on thin evidence, to investigate possible Chinese encroachment of Nepali territory. The Home Ministry led by his close acolyte then banned anti-Modi protests.
While Deuba sends all the right signals to New Delhi, he also seems intent on securing parliamentary approval for the American MCC compact. Diplomatic cables from the US Embassy in Kathmandu to Washington DC made public by Wikileaks have long described Deuba as a trusted friend of America. Deuba is bound to face a tough time getting the compact approved though; all his allies in the government are opposed to it in its current (or any other) form. The Nepal visit of the MCC head won’t change things much as most communist leaders here have long since made up their minds.
Perhaps Deuba wasn’t that pleased when, upon assuming office, China’s Global Times called him a ‘pro-Indian leader’. Deuba has never had a comfortable relation with Beijing, not the least because of his western proclivities. Ironically, this is also why many in New Delhi mistrust him. The constituency in India for closer strategic ties with the US continues to build in light of the recent India-China border tensions. Yet that doesn’t mean strategic thinkers there are comfortable with the idea of the Americans calling the shots in Nepal, India’s traditional backyard.
Going into the next Nepali Congress general convention, Deuba believes his interests will be best served by being in India’s good books—the country’s age-old need for a delicate balance between India and China be damned. In fact, Deuba was reluctant to become the prime minister by displacing Oli, whom New Delhi was warming up to. Only when domestic politics turned firmly in favor of his prime ministership did he change his mind. The leader of the country’s most illustrious democratic party relying on India to get re-elected as party chair says as much about India’s old interventionist tendencies as it does about our leaders’ utter lack of shame.
Most interesting will be to watch how the Chinese deal with Deuba in the days ahead. They have cultivated a sizable political section in Nepal, which they are sure to use to minimize American presence and to push for expeditious implementation of the nine BRI projects identified for Nepal. Besides, a huge constituency in Nepali Congress is still strongly in favor of closer ties with Beijing; such a ‘nationalist’ stand goes down well with many voters.
The Chinese are in a position to make Deuba’s life difficult if he continues to be seen as pushing the American agenda in Nepal. The kind of misinformation about the MCC Compact circulating on YouTube and the spontaneous anti-MCC rallies from obscure groups are a bitter foretaste of things to come for Deuba.
This again shows the importance of having a foreign policy based on broad political consensus, which will be the starting ground for negotiations with all international actors. It will then be difficult for foreign actors to push their agenda through their divide and rule strategy. But Deuba, again like most of his predecessors, is going the exact opposite way.