Amid the raging debate on $500 million grant to Nepal under the Millennium Challenge Corporation compact, Kamal Dev Bhattarai talked to Nepali Congress leader Gagan Kumar Thapa to solicit his views on the debate.
First, how do you evaluate the federal government’s overall foreign policy conduct?
The government is confused on foreign policy. Learning from experience and our geopolitics, Nepal should first manage its two giant neighbors. At the same time, we should enhance our relations with multiple powers. We should tread in a cautious and balanced way. Most important, we should not exploit our special geostrategic situation for immediate political gains. In this climate of political stability, there should be delivery in a new way. The dividend of government stability should be reflected in international relations. Our relations with other countries in the past two years have gone from bad to worse. Intra-party rifts and polarizations are unexpectedly thriving over foreign policy. Irrespective of who is in the government, all important actors in Nepal should have a clear direction. But we are sliding back and different political factions of the same party have different stands. The issues have been made more and more complicated.
How do you see the current MCC compact debate?
When we talk about foreign loan and grants and relations between two countries, sometimes we are influenced by specific events and emotions prevail. Similarly, we don’t have sufficient debates and discussions on bilateral relations.
We have become victims of these two tendencies. The MCC debate started on an emotional footing and we have never seriously discussed it. But there is positive side to it as the parliament could otherwise have endorsed it in a day, without substantial deliberations. The parliament has passed many bills of public importance without substantial debate.
The current debate should be taken in a positive way as it is part of our broader discussion on what should be our approach to foreign loans and grants. When the MCC enters the parliament, we should shun emotional debates. There should rather be informed discussions in parliament. It is also an opportunity for the parliament.
How do you evaluate this government’s handling of the MCC compact?
The issue is being presented in the public in different ways. One section says the MCC is everything and we should not miss it. Another sensational definition is that if we accept the MCC, American Army and missiles will come to Nepal. This resulted from the government’s inability to handle it properly. Of course, even if you accept a penny from outsiders, their interests will invariably be involved. In international relations, nothing is mutually exclusive. We have to tell people why the MCC’s acceptance serves our interests. The government should start an informed debate on it. But that is not how the government is going about it. Instead of addressing the raised issues, the government gave an impression that it is in hurry to pass the compact, which does not help.
In the initial stage, the PM promoted a conspiracy theory on the MCC. The head of government should have made it clear why the government accepts this grant and that such agreements could also be signed with other countries. Now the government is preparing to bring a house resolution stating that Nepal would not join any military alliance. Government ministers said the MCC was signed during the tenure of the previous government so it was the responsibility of the previous government, which was an irresponsible act. There was lack of maturity. The lack of debate culture in Nepal also created problems.
Even American officials say the MCC is a part of their Indo-Pacific Strategy. How do you see it?
There has been a lot of discussion on the MCC but not on key defense issues. There are joint exercises between Nepal and US armies. The US is providing a lot of assistance to Nepal Army. Similarly, China is also assisting the army. They are giving military assistance directly to the army. There has been no debate on whether the army should accept such assistance. Similarly, there are questions over whether the army should accept money directly from those countries. We can discuss the merits and demerits of the MCC but it should not be projected as a big issue of national sovereignty and security.
How should the national parliament handle the MCC compact?
In the parliament, we get just three minutes to speak. But even before the discussions in the parliament, party leaders who have already served as government ministers are continuously speaking on it. Some parties issued press statements on the MCC. All this called for a serious study of the MCC concept. Parties are allowed to take positions but they should be mindful because such positions could have long-term ramifications.
What do you make of the conspiracy theory that the MCC compact will allow the US army to come to Nepal?
There is conspiracy and disinformation over the MCC. Such conspiracy began to emerge after Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli linked the MCC with former speaker Krishna Bahadur Mahara. PM Oli’s comment that Mahara did not help with the passage of the MCC through the parliament helped build a conspiracy theory.
What do you make of the American condition of parliamentary approval of the MCC compact?
There are serious questions around us. Let’s take an example. In 2014, then CPN-UML leader Bhim Rawal and I asked in parliament why the power trade agreement with India had bypassed the legislature. We then brought up the power trade agreement in a parliamentary committee and the committee then gave appropriate instructions. The parliament should accept the responsibility for these important issues. In the case of the MCC compact, I think it entered the parliament in line with our own Treaty Act.
What will be your role as an MP when the MCC compact enters the parliament?
We should trust the parliament. There has been no discussion on it in the parliament. The issues raised by citizens will be definitely discussed there. If it is against national interest, we won’t accept it. If necessary, the MCC compact could be forwarded to parliamentary committees for discussions on technical issues. If these discussions are insufficient, we can form other expert committees. Again, the ruling party should handle the MCC in a mature way.
What kind of foreign help should Nepal ideally accept?
Nepal has a big resource-gap. We want to build big hydro projects, transmission lines, highways and fast-tracks on our own but then we don’t have enough resources. So we have to take out loans and accept grants. As far as possible, we should try to diversify the sources of our loans and grants. This is also a right of the Least Developing Countries. In our climate dialogue, we say that grant is our right. In European and Western countries, there was criticism that they were supporting us only in hardware and not in software. They have to support roads, transmission lines and other sectors too. This is what we are telling them. Perhaps the MCC compact is a reflection of that