US has sought help in curbing North Korean activities in Nepal

After a long delay, the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) held its Standing Committee meeting last week. Many there criticized the ‘unilateralist’ approach of party co-chairman and prime minister KP Sharma Oli, and the ‘troubling’ perfor¬mance of the ruling party. The other interesting development during this time was Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali’s state visit to the US. Kamal Dev Bhattarai discussed these issues in this wide-ranging inter¬view with senior NCP leader and former foreign minister Narayan Kaji Shrestha.

Why is the government performance considered so dismal?

Recent political changes created high expectations. It is not possible to fulfill all these expectations at once. The government has undertaken some positive initiatives but the results are as not evident yet.

Is it right to say that this government has no clear vision and policy?

I do not think so. In the initial days, the government pursued an independent foreign policy, and settled internal issues on its own without foreign help. The government also established balanced relations with neighboring countries based on mutual trust. It formulated laws to implement the constitution and make the federal structures functional. Local levels are also working effectively. The government must also be credited for taking decisive steps to implement the social security scheme. The policy of providing loans on the basis of educational certificates has been implemented, which helps curb rising unemployment. However, we have not been able to perform satisfactorily on the governance front. We have not done enough to curb corruption and deliver good governance.  

 

 

Is there a rift in party leadership?

The focus of our recent intra-party discussions is the fact that this government should not be allowed to fail. Its failure will lead to multiple crises in the country. Intra-party debates are thus centered on how to make the government’s works more effective and result-oriented. There is a view that the party must have a decisive say in running the government, and that the government’s weaknesses must be corrected but its positive tasks should be recognized.

Is the dissatisfaction centered on what is perceived as KP Oli’s monopoly in government?

Intra-party discussions are centered on two broad areas. First, how do we establish party control over government functioning? Second, how does the government prioritize economic prosperity and social justice? There is also consensus in the party that the current model of leadership, with two chairmen, is appropriate.

There are reports that Pushpa Kamal Dahal prevailed over KP Oli in the recent Standing Committee meeting.

Discussions in the party were not aimed at encouraging one chairman and discouraging another. The spirit of the discussions was that the two chairmen as well as the nine-member secretariat must share the blame for our recent failings. As PM Oli is leading the government, it is natural that he is criticized more.

But it is true that Dahal has of late played an apposite role in terms of party ideology, organizational structure and self-criticism. He has shown a sense of urgency. He was instrumental in making the meeting a success. But the meeting has not weakened PM Oli either. It has rather created a basis for collective leadership.

There are also demands that the party should implement a ‘one-man, one-post’ formula.

The party statute incorporates this principle. But it does not mean that one chairman should get one specific responsibility right now. Since we are in a phase of historical transition in terms of party unification, we have decided to move ahead with two chairmen. We are not in a position to assign specific responsibility to a particular chairman.

But in terms of practicality, the chairman who is leading the government should give more priority to government issues, while the chairman who is not in government should give more time to party organization. In terms of broader organizational structure, the ‘one-man, one-post’ formula is appropriate, at least until the party’s next General Convention.  

Do you think PM Oli will hand over government leadership to Dahal after two and half years?

It is not appropriate to talk about this right now. After a long time, there is hope of stability. We must support the government. The government leadership should not be confined to time frames.

But past governments in Nepal have collapsed because of intra-party disagreements over power-sharing.  

Politics and culture change with time. Now we have a stable government, which needs to be strengthened. Power issues are secondary. If there is an understanding in the party, we can take any decisions, including on government leadership.

Are there regular consultations between the party and the government?

In a multi-party democratic set-up and especially under communist party rule, it is the party that runs the government. Government policies and programs must be discussed within the party, which is not happening. The party cannot interfere in the day-to-day affairs of the government, but it should have a say in broader policy and structure.  

In a separate context, why do you think India is reluctant to receive the report of Nepal-India Eminent Persons Group (EPG)?

The Indian government’s is delay is inappropriate. It signals the perception that there has been a sea change in India’s Nepal policy post-blockade is untrue. Otherwise, there is no valid reason to delay receiving the EPG report.  

Do you think the internal politics of Nepal and India are hampering bilateral relations?

India is currently in electoral mode, with fast-approaching national elections. This has influenced bilateral relations. So far as Nepal is concerned, no internal factor is hampering relations with India right now. Some decisions of the Indian establishment have created friction between the two countries and affected India’s own interests, which is being realized in India. Again, the election season could be one reason behind the delay in receiving the EPG report.

Separately, what did you make of Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali’s statement that Nepal has convinced the US not to view Nepal from an Indian lens?

One dialogue or meeting cannot deliver such positive results. But FM Gyawali knows better because he discussed these issues with American officials. He is the right person to ask if there have been any changes in America’s approach to Nepal. But it would be premature to conclude that the US approach to Nepal has changed.

Does the foreign minister’s US visit signal a fresh approach of reaching out to countries beyond India and China?

Our geopolitical location has provided us with great opportunities as well as risks. If we conduct our foreign policy with maturity, our geopolitical location will benefit us. But if we fail to do so, it would adversely affect out national sovereignty and interest. We must tread carefully. We should not be unduly encouraged by one event or incident.

The US State Department says that the US now views Nepal as a central plank of its Indo-Pacific strategy. What is your reading?

We should try to enhance bilateral relations with other countries. But I don’t think the US extended its invitation to our foreign minister only to discuss bilateral issues. America formally talked about Nepal’s role in its Indo-Pacific strategy and requested us to play a central role. We should be cautious. We should not be involved in any such strategy. When I heard the US talk about Nepal’s central role in America’s Indo-Pacific strategy, I was surprised. What does it mean? The US government seems intent on forcing Nepal to back this strategy.

Is this strategy against china?

It is obviously against China. It is not in the interest of Nepal either.

There are also reports that the US sought Nepal’s help in curbing North Korea.

The Americans are saying that they want peace on the Korean Peninsula. The US is seeking our support in its proposal to the UN on North Korea. Similarly, America has, in a roundabout way, sought our help in curbing North Korean activities in Nepal and downsizing the North Korean embassy in Kathmandu. The US also wants us to restrict visas to North Korean citizens. It is a part of their strategy to put more pressure on North Korea.

Finally, as a former foreign minister, can you tell us where the biggest threats to Nepali interests have traditionally come from?

Everyone knows the most immediate threat comes from the southern neighbor, and then from western countries. There are no immediate threats from China. China’s interest in Nepal is limited to Tibet. China would otherwise not interfere in our internal affairs.