It’s striking how little Nepal’s foreign policy outlook has evolved in over 70 years since the 1950 democratic change. The national debates of that tumultuous decade (1950-1960) bear striking resemblances to foreign policy issues under current discussion. Even in 1951, those outside the government fulminated against the ‘unequal’ 1950 Nepal-India treaty, and there was no greater slur than to accuse the rulers of ‘pro-India’ bias. And just like now, among the elite class, there was back then a large constituency pitching for closer ties with China to balance India.
That is not all. Right now, those on the left have a field day criticizing the ‘imperial’ American MCC compact. Back then, too, they spoke against the American ‘grand designs’ against the communist Soviet Union and China, a charge that only got louder when the ban on communist parties was lifted in 1956. Except for BP Koirala, no other political party leader of the time could resist the temptation of invoking the threat to Nepali sovereignty from India for political gains, none more so than the wily Tulsi Giri, the three-time de facto[ARJ1] [ARJ2] prime minister.
After the 1962 India-China war, New Delhi was in a mood to reconcile with the Nepali monarch, and King Mahendra no longer needed the help of politicians to constantly needle India. When the war broke out, at India’s call, Nepali Congress abandoned its armed revolt against the autocratic Nepali monarchy, to the king’s great relief. He subsequently used his new leverage with India to remove the Indian army checkpoints from the Nepal-China border and to build a highway connecting Kathmandu with Tibet. Just in case, politicians like Giri continued to be handy to keep the Indians honest.
But if Giri was an uber-opportunist, so was KP Oli some decades down the line. Oli didn’t think twice about ditching New Delhi, his erstwhile all-weather friend, when he espied a chance to rise to power by cultivating closer ties with China in the wake of the 2015-16 Indian blockade. He opened up new trade routes via China. But when the Chinese started trusting him, he stabbed them on the back by deliberately delaying BRI projects just to please India.
His antics are not so different from those of another colorful character from the 1950s and 1960s: KI Singh, or the ‘Robin Hood of the Himalayas’. No one knew what Singh believed in. He was supposedly a communist (although he denied it) who even escaped to China to save his skin when his plot to take over Singhadurbar failed. The 20th prime minister of Nepal was also an expert at switching between India and China as was politically convenient. This does sound a touch like Prachanda, the 33rd, doesn’t it?
Could it be that as the geopolitical map is permanent, you can’t change a country’s foreign policy priorities, especially of one as precariously placed as Nepal? Every ruler since King Prithvi Narayan Shah has counseled balance between the north and the south. The presence of a strong third actor like the US has also always been vital to prevent India and China from settling Nepal’s fate between them. Whatever its level of development, for a relatively small country like Nepal (at least compared to its two giant neighbors), the priority of the ruling elite will always be the preservation of national sovereignty and independence. So, perhaps, it is wrong to say that our foreign policy has not evolved over the past seven decades. Maybe there is only so much room to maneuver.