Narayan Khadka is a keen student of international relations and as shadow foreign minister during the previous KP Oli government’s tenure, he is well aware of Nepal’s current challenges on the international stage. Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba is thus justified in appointing him his foreign minister. Khadka’s nuanced understanding of Nepal’s place in the world will serve him (and his country) well in his new role. But then, will he be allowed to function with a degree of independence?
His predecessor as foreign minister, CPN-UML’s Pradeep Gyawali, was also a fine mind, reputed over the years for his calmness and subtlety, the perfect attributes that Nepal’s chief diplomat should possess. Yet in office, he seemed to have no say as Oli virtually dictated the terms of his engagement with the outside world. Instead, to defend PM Oli’s repeated foreign policy bungling, Gyawali had to abandon his traditional calm and become uncharacteristically combative.
Khadka too is known for his calm demeanor and for the nuance he brings to any foreign policy debate. But will Deuba cut him any slack, especially as he seems to be in a mood to use India’s good offices to regain Nepali Congress presidency? Deuba has been unable to come to the defense of the MCC Compact that he signed, nor has he had the audacity to directly talk to India on the drowning of a Nepali national by Indian border forces or on the flying of Indian choppers over Nepali territories. Most recently, the Deuba government, representing Nepal as SAARC chair, failed to convene the SAARC foreign minister-level meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
Deuba has always been close to westerners, the US especially. With the Nepali Congress united in favor of the MCC Compact, he will face no opposition to it from within the party. Yet he will have his task cut out convincing the communist parties to come around on the compact. Khadka is in no place to help him either with the compact or the twin incidents with India.
When assuming office, the new foreign minister assured people that vacant ambassadorships would be filled strictly on merit-basis, after his return from the UNGA. Not everyone has the skills to be a country’s envoy, he said. That is true. But then Nepali ambassadors, save for the few career diplomats from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, have always been appointed along party lines, and many Deuba loyalists, as well as those affiliated to his coalition parties, are already queuing up. It is also hard to believe that a prime minister who has been unable to expand his cabinet beyond the bare minimum will get to appoint the diplomats of his choice, whether or not they are loyal to him.
The problem, again, is the lack of even minimal political consensus on Nepal’s foreign policy. This does not mean the main political parties should see eye to eye on all foreign policy issues; in fact, that would be a disaster. But they should at least agree on the fundamentals. Yet that too seems improbable at a time the whole polity—as well as the people—seems nearly neatly divided among the Indian, Chinese and American camps. The proponents of one camp, meanwhile, are convinced that the supporters of the others are no less than traitors.