Murari Sharma: A Brexit Prime Minister II

A few weeks back, I had written that the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson could very well be another Brexit prime minister. Now it appears that he is headed in that direction slowly and surely. Unless he removes his red lines or the EU compromises on its, Johnson could well be the third prime ministerial victim of Brexit from the Tories.

Before him, David Cameron left the post because he called the EU referendum and campaigned for Remain, but the Leave side won the vote, making his position untenable. His successor, Teresa May, lost her post after failing three times to get parliamentary approval to the withdrawal agreement she had signed with the EU to deliver an orderly British exit.

From US President Donald Trump’s playbook, Johnson appears to have taken a page. Trump has been breaking the decorum, conventions, and laws left and right, tolerated by the toothless Republicans and acquiesced by a Supreme Court whose Republicans-nominated justices have been accused in the media of a partisan approach. He had advised May to take the EU to court rather than negotiate a deal. Since she didn’t listen to him, he has been quite scathing in his remarks towards her.

In public, Trump has favored Johnson over May and other British leaders, except for Nigel Farage. The bluff Johnson made to the EU during the leadership selection and after becoming prime minister amply suggests that Johnson has taken Trump’s bait to hang tough to bend the EU and to expect a quick trade deal with the UK upon its exit.

Both measures are non sequitur. While he may like to believe it, Johnson does not wield the same economic and military influence as Trump does to cow other leaders, including from the EU, into submission. For whatever reason, Britain is a medium-sized player in the EU and the world.

Besides, Trump cannot offer a trade deal to the UK unless the Democrats controlled House of Representatives approves it. The reason is simple. If Britain jeopardizes the Good Friday Agreement that ended the decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland at the behest of US President Bill Clinton, the Democrats in the US have said they would block the new trade deal even if it is concluded, which is highly suspect, given Trump’s volatility. For starters, the US house has a strong Irish representation.

In view of all this, odds are stacked against Johnson. Though he has exuded optimism about the deal at the last minute, he has done everything to make sure there is no deal. For instance, he took weeks to meet his counterparts from the EU to get the ball rolling. He took weeks to meet German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar. Only next week, he is meeting the EU president, Jean-Claude Juncker, and chief negotiator, Michel Barnier. He hasn’t met other leaders and seems to have no plan for it right now.

In addition, while there was no green flag from France, Johnson has not, according to the EU leaders, submitted the alternative to the backstop negotiated by May and rejected by the parliament, though the 30-day time frame, a sort of, given by Merkel for a concrete and viable proposal to replace the backstop has almost run out. As EU leaders have complained, Johnson’s chief negotiator, David Frost, seems to beat around the bush in Brussels.

As such, the march towards crashing out seems irreversible at the level of rhetoric. Johnson has repeated umpteen times that the UK would come out of the EU on 31 October 2019, no matter what. As we know, the parliament has passed a law under which he must seek an extension if he can’t get a deal he wants from the EU.

Nonetheless, his acolytes have hinted that the prime minister could even defy the law or test it at the court. the parliament has rejected his proposal to call general elections twice.

But as some legal experts have suggested, breaking the law will bring its own consequences, including imprisonment. Therefore, Johnson will have to either resign or to ask his supporters to vote against him in a no-confidence motion possibly to force the Labor to support a general election. In the fixed-term parliament, a two-thirds majority is required to hold a mid-term election.

I say possibly considering, after the no-confidence vote, the opposition leader gets two weeks to form his government before the election is imposed. If Labor leader, Jeremy Corbyn, forms his government, then he would set the date for the election, not Johnson.

So for Johnson, all options—to request an extension of the Brexit date until the end of January 2020, as the parliament has asked him to, to resign or to break the law —  come with their exacting costs.

For instance, the request for extension will enrage the European Research Group, the hard-line Euro-skeptics, who would ask for Johnson’s head, as they had May’s. Resigning will get him out of 10 Downing Street and breaking the law will eventually catch up with him.

However, a deal is not out of reach, not yet. If the Democratic Unionist Party agrees to the North Ireland only backstop, originally suggested by the EU but rejected by the UK, it is possible. But will the DUP agree? As DUP leaders have said, they wouldn’t. Already heading a minority government, after he removed the whip from 21 members of parliament from his party, Johnson has nothing to lose.

So if he bullies/disregards the DUP, whose support was essential to prop up May’s government but not enough to keep Johnson in his chair, the deal is still possible. Will Johnson take the bait? Only time will tell.


Murari Sharma: A Troubled World

We have been passing through one of the most troubled times in the world. Among the major problems, North Korea has been testing one missile after another. Hong Kong has been boiling with demands for non-interference from China and for democracy. Japan and South Korea have been going through the most serious tiff after World War II. India and Pakistan, both nuclear states, are on the brink of yet another war over Kashmir.

Besides, Syria and Yemen have been burning, and the relations between Iran and the West have significantly worsened after the United States pulled out of the nuclear deal.  Italy has been on the cliff economically and politically. Brexit, the British departure from the European Union, has created political rift in Europe and economic uncertainty across the world.

What is more, the Amazon forests have been burning, depleting the source of 20 percent of the global oxygen production. The United States has undermined everything–trade agreements, arms agreements, environmental agreements, and organizations that underpin these agreements– that had kept the post-World War II world on an even keel. 

Where all this is leading the world? I am afraid, such political and economic breakdowns have preceded major catastrophes and wars in the past. The breakdown in the European political order, triggered by the murder of a Prussian prince, opened the door for World War I. Challenge to British global domination and the rise of Adolf Hitler in the wake of a punitive reparation mechanism of the World War I gave way to World War II. The division of Korea into communist and non-communist parts unleashed the Korean War. The infiltration of Pakistan supported by Muslims into Kashmir gave rise to three India-Pakistan Wars. Has the world headed towards a major war?

A caveat. Countries do not go to war, their leaders take them to war. When things go wrong, they go wrong in many countries together, one thing leading to another. More importantly, a whole crop of bad leaders emerge, taking a cue from the other. Call me a fatalist if you will, but one rogue leader encourages others to follow suit. There is a contagion effect, like in diseases.

Without proposing what they want to replace it with and how it looks like, political leaders of our time have been undermining the existing world order. Starting with the big and powerful, US President Donald Trump has been fully engaged in undermining the post-World War II economic and security structures that had kept peace.

For instance, he has pulled out from the Paris Agreement, unclear agreement with Russia, and almost demolished the North American Free Trade Agreement. He has triggered trade war with China and a number of friends and allies. At the same time, he has befriended fascists and dictators, undermined democratic friends and allies, and blessed and nurtured far-right movements across the world. 

Xi Jinping, China’s president, has been itching to suppress the people’s movement in Hong Kong and minorities in western China. Other issues in dispute apart, his retaliation against the United States tariff is not unwarranted, but this has incited a president who doubles down to hide his mistake has aggravated the trade war that is affecting the entire world.

In the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson, Trump’s friend and acolyte, has been out to wreck the European Union and the European order that had turned former enemies into friends and handed the longest peace and prosperity in Europe. In giving a lift to his nationalist credentials, he is likely to wreck the British economy.

Brazil, President Jair Borsonaro, has been imitating Trump as an anti-environmentalist and nationalist, and this might have prompted ranchers to burn the Amazon forest, which has been going on. Under growing international pressure, he has declared to send the military to fight the fire that has burned thousands of hectares.

If arrogance, hubris and far-right and far-left fanaticism hadn’t blinded political leaders, the world would not have suffered wars and conflicts.  The same phenomenon will play out in the future as well. At the moment, the world is standing on the brink of a major catastrophe. Sooner the world leaders understand it and step back from the edge, the better the world would be for everyone around the globe.




Murari Sharma: Our Leaders Often Pursue Their Personal Goal in Our Name

People have been griping about the poor performance of federal and provincial governments despite the two-thirds majority of the ruling party in the house at the center and its government in six of the seven states. Even within the ruling Communist Party of Nepal, such complaints have become frequent and common, from the top to the grassroots. But it should not surprise those who have been keeping an eye on political leaders and their motivation.

Let us start with their overarching motivation. Those who engage in politics do it to gain power and remain in it as long as possible. And those who have a large heart apply their power to help their constituents as much as they help themselves. However, the majority of them work only to warm their nests, and people hate them for it.

According to MSN Money, politicians have been the third most hated group, only telemarketers and debt collectors being worse. Even more damning, The Top Tens site says politicians are the most hated group of people, for they lie to be elected and do exact the opposite of their promises once in power. Essentially, you get the idea: They hug the apex or near it in the hate index.  

In other words, Mahatma Gandhis, Jose Mujicas, and even Ganesh Man Singhs, people of character and integrity, have been extremely rare in politics.

After India’s independence in his leadership, Gandhi unequivocally shunned formal power. Mujica, the current president of Uruguay lives in a ramshackle farm and donates 90 percent of his salary. Singh, like Gandhi, refused to become prime minister after the People’s Movement forced King Birendra Shah to restore multi-party democracy in 1990.

If the situation across the world, including the advanced countries, has been so pathetic, what can you expect from Nepali leaders? If we are expecting too much from our government, we are not being objective and realistic. If we believe the Transparency International, our political leaders have been occupying the top place in corruption.

For example, let us look at a few of them without naming names.    

One senior leader has risen to power swimming in the blood of 17,000 people, a large majority of them innocent civilians. His former deputies have accused him of swindling the government during the peace process and misappropriating the money to build his vast personal wealth. While he belongs to the richest 1% Nepalis, his background has been the lower middle. This transformation has occurred in 13 years.

Another equally senior leader, who used to live in a dark room of the rented flat of my friend in Panchayat days, has built a palace for him and amassed so much wealth that he also belongs to the richest 1% Nepalis in less than 30 years, though he comes from a poor family.

Yet another, a self-claimed honest leader who was not deemed particularly smart and successful, has built a 25 plus room house to keep his books and accommodate his family.

Several of our leaders have been cited for their accounts in Panama, Switzerland and other tax havens, which precisely means those accounts are replete with dirty money.

These are just a few representative cases. Only successful business-people like Facebook’s Mark Zukerburg and Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin have become so rich as quickly as our political leaders. So what can we expect from our corrupt leaders?  

If you have found a clean, upright politician, please tell me. I would want to pay my obeisance to him/her and worship him/her. Since I have worked with bureaucracy, someone might point out that bureaucrats are corrupt too.

That would not be wide off the mark. Evidently, our bureaucracy has become increasingly corrupt and yet, it still has a few clean, non-corrupt people. You would not find as many politicians who have not been corrupt, business-people who have not cheated on taxes, or journalists who have not distorted facts to curry favors or suit their angle.

To be fair to our politicians, the democratic system, in which periodic elections require colossal expenses, encourages them to engage in corruption. Therefore, the point I am trying to make here is our leaders, barring a few, have crossed the reasonable bound.

For instance, our leaders promise the moon to get elected; once elected, they strive to gain power, stick to it, and work to enrich them and their relatives and cronies. If they have done anything for the country and people, it has been incidental as their investment to come back to power rather something done out of the sense of duty and commitment.  

That said, it would be wrong to say nothing has happened in the country. Roads, communication networks, schools, hospitals, power plants and water supply projects are being built. Such achievements have happened more notably under the people’s initiatives and the private sector rather than under the public sector.

Therefore, it would be safe to say that the ultimate goal of our leaders has been to earn a name, fame, and money for them and for their cronies. In their speeches and statements, they may praise you, the voters, but when they wear their working hat, they think only of themselves. Unfortunately, we have been working for them as their useful idiots by electing time after time.  

Considering this significant element, we must reflect on the electorate, i.e. us, before we pour our scorn on our elected leaders. We ought to ask us whom we have voted for and whether we have exercised our vote prudently to elect the leaders of impeccable character and unwavering commitment to public service, not the charlatans who sell the moon to win votes and ballots.

If we have elected stinking garbage, we would get stinking garbage in return. Since we can’t wash donkey into a cow, character matters, whether our leaders are in government and in opposition. Therefore, we ought to assess government performance in this light and become wiser for the next time. 

Murari Sharma: Johnson, Brexit Prime Minister?

Boris Johnson has recently replaced Teresa May as prime the prime minister of the United Kingdom. May had resigned her post after the hard-Brexit members of parliament voted against the agreement she had negotiated to leave the European Union as the necessary outcome of the 2016 referendum to that effect. 

Although the flamboyant journalist-turned-politician has outlined a swath of policy initiatives for his administration, Brexit will test him more than anything owing to his rhetoric. In Tory party hustings for his election, Johnson had reiterated umpteen times that he would get out of the EU on 31 October 2019 with deal or no deal.

Will Johnson be able to deliver?

Let me start with some background. To be sure, politicians who make many promises they know they cannot fulfill have never been the fountain of truth and probity. But desperate people had voted even for rouge politicians with sweet promises on the hope that they would deliver on their promises. Yet, they had avoided electing people without some level of gravitas and seriousness to the top posts. No more. 

What once seemed impossible has become a new mainstream. Today, several advanced democracies have elected as their top leaders the truth-dodgers, misogynists, racists, and fact-challenged, and clowns to the top posts.  

This has been the result of several factors, including the loss of faith in religion and ideology, prolonged relative peace and prosperity, and a decline in political participation of average citizens.

For example, according to the British Social Attitude survey, 52 percent of the public in the United Kingdom claims to have no religious attachment in 2018, up from 31 percent in 1983. Communism, which through competition had kept capitalism relatively honest in the past, is on a free fall after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Relative peace and prosperity have given voters the luxury to experiment with the previously outlying political figures and worldviews.

A decline in political participation has given the power to decide the country’s leadership to a handful of active political activists. From 2004-2016, less than 60 percent of people have voted in the general elections in the United States and the United Kingdom. 

That brings me to Boris Johnson’s election. He epitomizes all the things I have enumerated above. He has said he is not a practicing Christian, had written a pro-EU and an anti-EU column for The Daily Telegraph, been fired twice by his employers for lying, and been divorced twice and living with a girlfriend. Because Tory members wanted to experiment him, his reported fracas with the girlfriend during the hustings did not affect his prospects of becoming prime minister .   

According to his supporters,  the flamboyant, charismatic, Teflon Johnson is an optimist with a can-do bravado, citing his time as London’s two-term mayor. His critics disagree.

In terms of inclusion, Johnson has had a mixed record. As the mayor of London, he had a diversified group of lieutenants. As prime minister, he has given Treasury and Home office to minority politicians and his supporters, Sajid Javid and Priti Patel, respectively.

On the other hand, he has made anti-Muslim remarks, including calling Muslim women as the post office and barrel. 

As the record shows, men with a mission like Johnson (he wanted to be a king in his childhood) can sometimes rise to great heights and leave lasting positive legacies. At the same time, they could be writers of dark chapters. What they do is often guided what smooths their political career.

Johnson’s role model, Churchill, was such an example. On one hand, he became a hero in World War II as British prime minister. On the other, he produced the Bengal famine that killed nearly three million people in India.

However, the rope he has made for himself by giving the Brexit deadline might tighten around his neck and make him a Brexit prime minister, just like Teresa May. Here is why. 

First, European leaders, who are open to renegotiating the political declaration on the future trade deal, have already ruled out the renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement itself.

Second, even if the EU were to agree to renegotiate, there is not enough time to be completed by 31 October. British and European leaders go on vacation in July-August.   

Third, EU leaders have called Johnson’s bluff by sticking to their red lines, e. g., the Irish backstop. 

Also, the parliamentary arithmetic will not let Johnson crash out of the EU without a deal. Including a few key members of Johnson’s party, the majority voted against May’s deal several times.  If push comes to shove, some of his party stalwarts, as they have indicated, would support a no-confidence motion in Johnson moved by Labor.  

Prorogation of Parliament, floated by the Johnson supporter and now foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, to stifle the house will create a constitutional crisis with an uncertain outcome, and it would be difficult to do.

That leaves Johnson with mainly two predictable courses. On one hand, he could call early elections, which the Labor Party will support. On the other, he could agree to put the Teresa May’s deal to a referendum, which will have support from several Tory MPs and the majority of Labor MPs.

Next, what will happen? As your guess would be as good as mine, I refrain from making a judgment. 

Murari Sharma: US-UK Diplomatic Row and its Broader Implications

Your son insults your neighbor; your neighbor berates your son; you abandon your son; your son breaks with you. This what happened between the United States and United Kingdom. And it will have broad implications for diplomacy across the world.

The UK ambassador to the United States, Kim Darroch, has resigned after his candid reports on US President Donald Trump and his administration were leaked to the media and his position became untenable. As it is, it has raised serious questions about the duty and responsibility of diplomats around the world.

A respected and senior career diplomat, Mr. Darroch’s posting would have ended at the end of this year. In his highly classified emails, he had described the Trump administration as ‘inept’, ‘incompetent’, and ‘insecure’. To report on the host country objectively, as they see it is the obligation of diplomats.

It is important to note that Prime Minister Teresa May and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt backed their representative unequivocally. So did other ministers and members of parliament from all parties. However, those who are hell-bent to pull Britain out of the European Union seem to think that the diplomat is a Europhile. Make no mistake, anyone who sides with prudence is treated as their enemies by hard-line Brexiters.

As it is obvious, three people have made his position in Washington untenable. First. US President Donald Trump mounted a tirade of personal attacks against the British ambassador, calling him ‘very stupid’ and ‘a pompous fool’, and froze out from key events like the White House dinner in honor of the Qatari Sheik and the a meeting with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Subtlety is not one of Trump’s strong suits.

Trump proved himself as the British ambassador had described: Insecure, vengeful, and prone to flattery and his administration inept and dysfunctional.

Second, Boris Johnson, according to Europe Minister Alan Duncan, threw the diplomat under the bus. In a face to face interview with them, Hunt threw his unequivocal support behind the embattled representative in Washington while Johnson failed to do so, making his position, as the diplomat implied in his resignation, untenable.

Johnson is ahead by far in the Tory leadership contest, which could lead him to 10 Downing Street. He, as often characterized, proved that he is more interested in himself rather than his party and the country.

Third, the person or persons who collected and leaked to the media over two years the ambassador’s unvarnished confidential reports on Trump and his quirky administration, as Bob Woodward and others have described in their books and interviews.

The leaker, who should be a die-hard pro-Brexit aficionado, did a disservice to the country to promote the parochial interest of getting the UK out of the European Union at any cost. Though it should be a subject of investigation to find out who did it, the damage has been done to the British establishment.

Consequently, the question has arisen whether diplomats should provide their honest opinion on the host country’s leader and government in the service of the country they are hired to serve or keep an eye to prolong their position, if necessary, sucking up to the host country.

Of course, the host country has the right to declare any diplomat persona non-grata to remove him or her from the country if there is a good reason for it under the Vienna Convention. By informally speaking to the leader of the sending country, it can also quietly obtain the same result. 

Like several other things he has been doing as president, Trump has chosen the unconventional path to edge out the British diplomat. He has used his unadorned private twitter post. In the past, he has fired all his secretaries and advisers whom he wanted out through his twitter posts.

Even though the State Department spokesperson said the department had no instruction from the White House to that effect, the department understands that the most important instructions from the president come through his private twitter posts, and they need to defend them either by commission or omission.

Besides, it is difficult to ascertain what is true and what is false in what Trump or his administration says because they have been deploying shifting narratives as a story develops.

Nevertheless, this precedent will have far-reaching consequences for diplomats around the world. It will haunt the diplomats of rich and powerful countries more than smaller and less powerful countries.

The reason is simple. The diplomats of powerful and rich countries do not tire in interfering in the internal affairs of their host country.  Rather than going through the conventional routes, the host country now can deploy the same tactics as Trump to eject the pesky diplomat.

More importantly, this precedent will instruct ambassadors and other diplomats to be less candid and honest in serving their country more careful in protecting their job. To most diplomats of small/powerless countries like Nepal who are there to provide protocol service to their political masters and of those countries where diplomats service only at the pleasure of their leader, it probably does not matter.

However, it matters abundantly for diplomats from all countries who put service to their country above service to their political masters and their own longevity in their posts.

In terms of Nepal, though most of our ambassadors and diplomats have left much wanting, there have always been several competent and dedicated people in the diplomatic core.  The British diplomat’s case encourage the bad apple and discourage the good ones. 

To be sure, Sir Kim Darroch’s resignation when his position became unsustainable is a small blip in a long tradition of diplomacy. But it will certainly have far-reaching implications for diplomatic practices around the world. We all learn from others, don’t we?


Murari Sharma: BRI and Nepal–It All Depends on Leaders

As the debate over the debt-trap created by the Belt and Road Initiative rages across the world, Nepal needs to tread with care and confidence.  But the debate misses the point. What should be discussed is whether leaders in the recipient countries would create a debt-trap or to lift millions of people from the poverty-trap with the BRI funding.    

For starters, BRI is a major infrastructure mechanism launched and led by China. Expected to involve over US$1 trillion in investments, it focuses on 71 countries but covers 152 countries in Asia, Africa and Europe. It seeks to develop infrastructures like ports, roads, railways, airports, power plants and telecommunications networks. 

By far the largest, China’s pledge to the initiative has been $60 billion plus $15 billion, which includes a grant element and five areas: policy coordination, infrastructure connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration, and connecting people. Although it has a small grant component, the majority of funding has been allocated to loans. The current projects of all stages would cost around $575 billion.

While some countries have benefited from the initiative, others have fallen into a debt-trap because of it, triggering the debate. The debate has three sides: Those who support the initiative, those who oppose it and those who are in the middle.

For example, as I see it, the United States has opposed the initiative for political and strategic reasons and India has opposed it to preserve its political and strategic leverage in South Asia and keep it as India’s captive market. China’s close allies have supported the initiative unconditionally. As expected, those in the middle, including most European countries, have offered qualified support. In Nepal too, all three sides are represented, for the same reasons.

Those who oppose BRI tooth and nail cite the examples of Sri Lanka and the Maldives. In Sri Lanka, BRI funded the construction of the Hambantota Port, which incurred losses in its operation making it difficult to service the loan. So a Chinese company has taken it over as a public-private partnership venture.

In the Maldives, the current government has blamed the previous government for corruption and undue debt-burden incurred while building the BRI-funded bridge that connects Male with its international airport.

What we do not know is whether the Sri Lankan and Maldivian authorities had been upright in selecting and vetting those projects’ economic viability and in implementing them. Neither do we know whether BRI officials had been honest and diligent in their work before making the funding decision. 

In this situation of ambiguity, Nepal will have to decide its approach. While doing so, we ought to consider three important elements. First, China is Nepal’s next-door neighbor and a major strategic and economic power. This essentially means, even as we do not need to toe their line, we cannot ignore Beijing either to the extent that it does not go against our national interest.

Second, institutions and precedents are important but leadership is even more crucial to determine how they work. Take politics for example. Right now, we have been witnessing how checks and balances, the hallmarks of democracy, are being eroded in some democratic countries because their leaders so wants.

In the same vein, we have also been witnessing how once sclerotic communist states have been transforming themselves because of their political leaders. It applies to economic, social and even criminal organizations.

In other words, BRI is just an organization sponsored by China, like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank promoted by Western powers. Though there are some differences between BRI and other organization, how BRI functions in reality will depend primarily on how the Chinese and BRI leaders behave. And they will have to be lenient with Nepal, a friendly neighbor bordering on China’s sensitive part. 

Third, at this stage, BRI has a grant component of 9 billion dollars. Being a least developed country, Nepal can and should insist on having the grant part bigger than the loan in the assistance package. For economically viable projects, the loan component could be accepted if the conditions are as good as or better than other sources of financing.

In any event, it takes two to tango: Donors and recipients. All donors, not just China, have their priorities. They sweeten their deals to make palatable to recipients, but they cannot ram the deals down the recipients’ throats. The recipients can always reject the deals that are not in their national interest.   

For example, Cuba has not caved in to the US sanctions from the 1960s. Under far-reaching Western sanctions, North Korea and Iran have weakened but have not yielded or collapsed. Despite the Arab boycott, Israel has been thriving.  

On occasions, Nepal has also refused proposals from powerful neighboring countries and international organizations. For example, it rejected India’s proposal to coordinate the two countries’ foreign and defense policies since the 1950s and to postpone the promulgation of the new constitution in 2015. In the same vein, Kathmandu rejected China’s pressure to prevent Nepali social organizations from working with Taiwan’s counterparts and Tibetans from entering Nepal as refugees. 

As for international organizations, when I was working with the Foreign Aid Division of the Finance Ministry, Dr. Devendra Raj Pandey, then finance secretary, had firmly rejected the World Bank’s strong push of IDA loan to primary education. He argued that, while there was imperative to build human capital for growth, primary education would not produce a stream of revenue to repay the debt directly.

However, soon after Pandey left the government, Nepal accepted the IDA loan for primary education. Now Nepal is building the mountain of debt, which has not buried us simply because we are a least developed country, qualified for debt relief and debt forgiveness. Several bilateral development partners have either already forgiven or been forgiving Nepal’s debt.  If Nepal remains a poor country, BRI will have to consider it as well. However, it should not be a consideration while accepting the loan; it must be the economic viability of the projects.

Is BRI selfless? No program or agency is self-less. Market, politics, religion, ideology, strategic interest and any number of other overt and covert interests guide development assistance programs around the world. Is the debt-trap is the child of BRI? No. Western loans have also created a debt trap, requiring the debt forgiveness programs for decades.   

Therefore, the question is not whether the Belt and Road Initiative is essentially good or bad or catches a recipient in a debt trap. It is whether our leaders use BRI funding as a life-taking poison by creating a debt-trap or a life-saving potion by lifting the poor from the poverty-trap. Though their track record has been palling, only time will tell what our venal leaders will do in the future. 





Murari Sharma: Utility of Prime Minister Oli’s Europe Trip

As the Nepali Prime Minister KP Oli wraps up his visit to Europe, commentators in Kathmandu have been busy debating its utility. His supporters in his party, Communist Party of Nepal, have euphorically praised the visit. On the other hand, his opponents have viewed it as a pleasure trip. Bear with me: I find it useful and useless at the same time.    

Bear with me, and let me start with expectations, if not principles. High-level visits between countries, formal and informal, have taken place for centuries. Their ultimate goal has been, and ought to be, advancing the national interest, which in itself could be vague. One’s national interest could be another’s personal and partisan interest.   

With this caveat, high-level visits have usually taken one of the three forms: Goodwill, cooperation, and problem-solving.  Goodwill visits have the immediate aim of introducing leaders to each other, building friendship and trust between them and opening the door to advance the mutually compatible national interests, the ultimate objective. Often the first high-level visits fall into this category.

Once the groundwork has been done with goodwill visits, leaders often instruct their subordinate to pursue specific cooperation in the mutual areas of interest.  Problem-solving high-level visits have worked as an instrument to try and hammer out the lingering differences and obstacles left unresolved in discussions at the lower levels.

To be productive, all three types of visits should to be prepared meticulously and specifically. Otherwise, they have been unproductive, hardly useful, and even counterproductive. Against this background, we need to examine Prime Minister KP Oli’s Europe visit. 

This time, Oli has visited Switzerland, Britain and France, his second to Europe. The overall first impression the visit has given me is that it had not been fully prepared in advance, which automatically means it has not been as successful as Oli’s blind supporters have tried to portrayed.    

More specifically, the multilateral side of Oli’s Switzerland visit was symbolic and the bilateral side incidental. Oli had gone to Geneva primarily to address the centenary celebration of the International Labor Organization. 

To be sure, it was important for Nepal to participate in the event and reiterate Nepal’s abiding commitment to the principles and work of the ILO, which has done much to protect and promote labor rights in the country and around the world. Oli has done it.

However,  the bilateral part has left much to be desired. Oli met only with the interior mistier, Alain Berset, according to news reports. Nepal’s major development partner, Switzerland has helped Nepal in the road, suspension bridge, agriculture and health sectors. Oli’s visit could have been more productive if Nepal had presented concrete proposals for Swiss assistance, including a road-map to replace tuins, the dangerous single ropes to cross mighty rivers, with proper suspension bridges, one of the several promises made by him.

Moving on to Britain, which has been the largest or the second largest development partner for several years, Oli’s visit has been ill-timed and unproductive. He met Prince Harry and caretaker Prime Minister Teresa May. Some in Nepal have made an issue of his not meeting with the ceremonial queen. But there is a more pertinent and significant issue here.

When Oli met Teresa May, she had already resigned and she had been working as caretaker prime minister. She had no power to make or extract any commitment, let alone to oversee its implementation. Once they retire, British leaders walk into political oblivion, unlike the date-expired Nepali leaders to hang on to a post unto their death.

So the visit has not had any substance, and the British side had made it clear about it in advance. Since Nepali leaders seldom meet the British prime minister, Oli’s sterile visit could have come at a steep future price.  After 17 years, the visit at this level has taken place. 

Finally, France’s case has been more ambiguous. Oli met his counterpart, Edouard Philippe, not President Emmanuel Macron, who is the power center. As a side note, Prime Minister Girija Koirala had met French President Francois Mitterrand during his Paris visit 18 years ago.

More substantively, for some time, France has been diverting its resources from Anglophone countries to Francophone countries. The handful of projects funded by them in Nepal have been useful but modest in size, and majority to them have already been completed. In recent years, Paris has shown no major interest to expand its cooperation in Nepal. 

Despite that, France has been important to Nepal as the permanent member of the UN security council and member of the European Union, which is a sizeable development partner. If Oli’s visit has broken a new ground, which will take time to materialize, it would be deemed as useful for Nepal for the future.

Whenever high-level visits fail to produce expected results, they get rationalized that such visits should not be judged only in terms of dollars and cents. While that is partly true as an investment in the future, it cannot completely be detached from practical considerations of cost and benefit at some point.   

Our capricious leaders often make whimsical decisions and try to justify that black is white and white is black. Their acolytes and sycophants parrot the boss’s line. In such a toxic and pervert environment, there is little room for an objective assessment to be received positively from those whose sentiments have been ruffled.

However, let me conclude with these words: The visit has been a mixed bag. More precisely, it has been more useful to burnish and boost Prime Minister Oli’s image and less to deliver value for the money to the country. Ill-timed and ill-prepared, the visit has undermined its utility and underachieved its potential.