Your search keywords:

Some thoughts on Sagarmatha-bound ties

Some thoughts on Sagarmatha-bound ties
Preparations had been going on for quite some time on the Prime Minister’s maiden foreign visit after the assumption of high office about five months ago and desperation seemed palpable at Singhadurbar with some delays in getting a green signal from New Delhi. These preps have borne fruit with the PM finally flying off with a huge entourage on a four-day visit, at a time of deepening crises in the country and fresh attempts in Delhi to stoke up fresh territorial controversies with the unveiling of a continent size mural at the new Parliament building. In hindsight, Nepal has lost pounds of flesh while it has sought—or come under pressure—to deal with the powerful neighbor, but then learning from the past has been an alien concept for successive political leadership over the decades, regardless of its hues and shades. Indeed, some of the purported agendas of the visit have already begun ringing alarm bells in Nepal. There’s no dearth of experts, who see deals in the making over Lower Arun and Phukot Karnali as part of a long-thought-out strategy on the part of Delhi to get hold of all of Nepal’s river systems to meet a burgeoning need for water—for irrigation, potable water, fisheries and navigation—as well as power. Add to it some understanding on petro import infrastructure to ensure a smooth import of petroleum products in a country with enough hydropower potential to meet her energy needs, making Nepal’s laity wonder if these are our organic agendas. There’s no such thing called free lunch and the petro project, to be implemented in part with Indian aid, is no exception. The idea seems to be to establish India as the sole supplier of petroleum products to Nepal and make the country ever-reliant on imports, ruling out any future possibility of petroleum exploration and production in the country itself. This also means making Nepal’s economy run more and more on fossil fuels, whose prices are never stable, thereby ensuring a cheap export of hydropower generated in Nepal, with Indian capital and with the involvement of Indian companies, and increasing on the taxpayer the burden of running a costly, fossil fuel-powered economy.

This is not written on stone, but has become a ‘tradition’ of sorts (Over the decades, we have done away with many traditions as part of our ceaseless embrace of all things modern, but then some traditions are far more sacred than others, right?). That is, Nepal PM’s first visit starts with the southern neighbor, followed by a visit to the northern one and the world beyond. Call it the state’s feeble attempt to maintain balanced ties with both the giants that have been rising steadily to global prominence even as we continue to slide further and further.

The rise of the neighbors over the decades and our literal crashing on the ground from the high Himalayas shows how ineffective political systems governing a country of the rugged Himalayas, verdant hills, alluvial plains and perennial rivers has been when it comes to navigating the choppy waters of geopolitics and geostrategy. The details marked by instances of high treason like the Treaty of Sugauli (1816), the 1950’s Peace and Friendship Treaty, Koshi Agreement, Gandak Agreement, the Mahakali Treaty and recent deals over the Karnali, Arun and the Seti show that myopia has been a constant in our political leadership and bureaucracy, despite waves of political changes. While one Dhritarashtra and his Putramoh (affection toward his sons, Duryodhan, the eldest, in particular) had a very crucial role in making the war of Kurukshetra a reality along with a slew of characters like Duryodhan and Shakuni (the entire plot was of the master strategist Krishna, who had gotten tired of moral degradation of his own clan, the Yaduvamshis), we seem to have no dearth of such characters of the Mahabharata fame, at a time when Cold War 2.0 for global supremacy is in full swing!  These details offer important lessons to all and sundry on how not to conduct foreign policy, on how not to run (ruin) a country. The modern-day Kurukshetra playing out in the life of this country is beyond the scope of this short piece, so let’s focus on the upcoming prime ministerial visit. In an instability-plagued governance system like ours, a chief executive hardly gets to complete even half of the five-year term. So, PMs keep coming and going through a revolving door arrangement of sorts. Such is the state of affairs that the Nepalis have, literally, lost count of the prime ministers that have come to power and gone just like that, especially after 1990, a very troublesome period marked by the decade-long insurgency that began in February 13, 1996, the royal massacre of June 1, 2001, the adoption of a federal secular democratic republican system (May 28, 2008), the abolition of the monarchy, the Gorkha earthquake (April 25, 2015), the adoption of a federal constitution (September 20, 2015), the Indian blockade that followed and the hot-off-the-press Bhutanese refugee scam (2023). Despite this all-too-frequent change of guard, one thing is almost certain: Upon assuming office, the incumbent will start a slew of foreign visits by first embarking on a visit to the southern neighbor. For that first visit to materialize, the invite has to come from the host country. If the invite does not come or comes late, the rulers get a feeling that Delhi may not be happy with them, meaning they have their days in power numbered. So, our chief executives wait for such an invite with bated breath and do everything to accommodate the neighbor’s concerns even at the expense of national interest. As for the agendas of such visits, they do not matter much because the agendas of the powerful neighbor prevail anyway. Border disputes will be raised once again (albeit feebly), border security will be discussed once again, some projects will be jointly inaugurated and some rivers will be given away in the name of cooperation in the water resources sector. No big deal, isn’t it? A country ‘rich’ in water resources can gift one more river to a dear neighbor even after losing control over such important rivers like the Koshi, Gandaki and the Mahakali, even at a time when it is becoming clear as daylight that future inter-state conflicts will be largely over water. And such an exchange, like previous ones, will take bilateral relations to ‘new heights’ (perhaps atop the Sagarmatha, the world’s tallest peak), if press releases issued after such exchanges are any guide. The only way for our bilateral relations with the neighbor down south is to go up, up and further up, isn’t it? There’s hardly any chance of the relations going a bit southwards and minimizing the damage resulting from unilateral and mindless development activities like dams and embankments that have resulted in inundation of our farmlands and settlements, encroachment upon our bordering territories, atrocities against people living along the border. For a change, how about using such a forum to assess the impact of the open border and influx of displaced populations from India and the extended neighborhood on our national security? And how about having a note-taker jot down important matters discussed and decisions taken, for the sake of institutional memory and transparency in our dealings? The Nepalis have begun to wonder if a visit to the southern neighbor has to be always marked by Nepal receiving a few more raw deals in the name of special, ages-old and people-to-people relations. They have started questioning if a visit down south is mandatory after every change of guard, as if to pay tribute to some emperor. While engaging Delhi, the political and bureaucratic leadership should not forget that they have no right to sign a deal that harms national interests and jeopardizes the future of successive generations of Nepalis. They should remain aware of the fact that a conscious citizenry is watching and will hold them to account in the event of some shady deal meant to serve short-term interests of the ruling elite at the expense of long-term interests of Nepal and the Nepalis.