Tattered Trust


UCPN (Maoist) Supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal visited India soon after returning from China. He has proclaimed that both visits were meant to promote economic development of Nepal. He did talk about development, but his real mission was quite different.

High level political visits between friendly countries are common. Even when relations are not very cordial, such visits take place to help break the ice. Nepal enjoys good relations with China and India, and they routinely invite Nepali political leaders for a visit. Many a time, Nepali leaders ask for an invitation and our neighbors comply. So there is nothing remarkable about Dahal’s visits to the neighboring countries.

What is remarkable is the mission and timing. Obviously, Dahal had two missions for his sojourn to China and India: First, as his critics have said, he wanted to get the neighbors’ blessings for the forthcoming Constituent Assembly elections. Second, he wanted to augment his national and regional leadership credentials.

In small countries, external influence is an important factor in shaping internal political dynamics. So it is understandable that leaders of small countries try to obtain electoral advantage of being close to the larger neighbors. China, as the second largest economic and military power in the world, is trying to establish a wider strategic foothold in Nepal, as more arrivals of Chinese officials now suggest. Although Dahal deserves credit for extracting an invitation from Beijing to become the first Nepali leader to meet with the new leadership team there, China did not commit any new project to hand him any kind of electoral advantage.

Similarly, how Dahal’s party performs in the next CA polls in the Tarai and whether he can lead the government after the election depends much on India’s attitude, signals and support. It is, therefore, perfectly understandable if Dahal tried to accrue some electoral benefit from his visits to China and India. However, China and India usually try to steer clear of any controversy or bias just before a general election. Therefore, they are likely to invite leaders from other key parties before the polls in order to strike a balance. As these trips are likely to take place closer to the election, they would wipe out Dahal’s political edge from his visits.


What is more, neither China nor India made commitments to new projects to hand Dahal political advantage over other leaders. In a sense, his visits were ill-timed.

Dahal’s more important mission was to augment his national and regional leadership credentials. Dahal has tried to project himself at home and abroad as the undisputed leader of Nepal. He presumes, with some basis, that he is the natural candidate to fill up the national leadership void left by Girija Prasad Koirala’s death. He has claimed that before death Koirala had asked him to take the nation’s leadership, not just his party’s.

To advance this mission, Dahal gambled by integrating only a fraction of Maoist combatants into the army, changing the tactical course of his party in the recent Hetauda convention, and proposing an apolitical election government. His proposal to forge trilateral cooperation among Nepal, China and India was his latest bid to burnish his image not only as a national leader but also a regional heavyweight. Has he succeeded in his mission?

Not much. In China, Dahal, like he said, told his hosts that Nepal could maintain one-China-policy and address China’s security concerns more effectively if it were economically developed. For development, he asked Chinese leaders to construct a Nepal-China railway link and invest in hydropower and tourism in Nepal. He also said he tried to remove Chinese apprehensions about ethnic federalism.

Well, one-China policy has become a cliché that does not impress Beijing anymore. Barring a few small Central American and South Pacific countries, the whole world has embraced that policy now. Nepal has no option but to stick to it irrespective of its political orientation or development status. To hint that this policy is conditional on China’s investment in Nepal must have sounded churlish to Chinese leaders.

Similarly, to imply that Nepal’s progress could promote China’s security sounds like unwarranted arrogance. Externally, Beijing is worried about Washington’s military support for Taiwan and human rights concerns in Tibet, disputes over the Spratly Islands, and Moscow’s resurgence in the north and west. Neither Nepal nor India as such is China’s notable external security threat.

However, Beijing is deeply concerned about internal stability and security, and Nepal’s emerging ethnic federalism is related to it. Ethnic federalism in Nepal, China fears, will affect it in three ways. First, it will embolden separatists in Tibet, Xinxiang and other restive minority provinces. Second, it will create too many fragile states along the Nepal-China border that would share cultural affinity with and be sympathetic to the Tibetans opposed to Beijing. Third, a few strong states on the Nepal-India border will further skew strategic balance in Nepal in India’s favor.

China will not trust anyone until this vital security concern is addressed. If Dahal truly believes his assurances have allayed such fundamental fears of China, he either does not understand Confucian diplomacy or is delusional. Chinese, Japanese and Korean officials rarely say upfront that they disagree with the other side. Rather, they continue to display polite and pretended ignorance and raise the same issue and ask the same question repeatedly until the other side withers and compromises. This ‘diplomacy of attrition’ is different from Western and South Asian presumptive diplomacy in which officials try to put their interlocutors in the other side’s shoes.

By Dahal’s own admission, Chinese officials raised the issue of ethnic federalism at different levels and on multiple occasions. Given his mercurial character, questionable credibility, and lack of governmental backing, it would be delusional for Dahal to think that he, with his few pleasant words, could mitigate the serious Chinese apprehensions related to their vital security interest. It must have been clear to him from Beijing’s indifference to his trilateral cooperation proposal.

Dahal’s India visit was a more mixed bag. Dahal might have been able to slightly mend his frayed relations with India. He also secured some measure of sympathy for his federal agenda in which the Tarai will have one or two strong states that India wants and the Hills will have several weak states that it does not care about and China does not like.

Beyond that, nothing was accomplished. As a bad prelude, Indian External Affairs Minister Shalman Khurshid shot down Dahal’s trilateral cooperation proposal as premature before his New Delhi sojourn even started. His opaque Beijing visit also gave reason for India to distrust him. Besides, Indian officials do not trust Nepali leaders because they blow hot and cold for their petty personal interests and commit to deliver the sky at the negotiating table but do nothing afterwards.

Dahal, more than any other Nepali leader, has undermined his own credibility. He first opposed “Indian hegemony” and “expansionism”; then secretly committed to Indian intelligence agencies to safeguard Indian interests in Nepal in exchange for the freedom of movement in India for him and his comrades during the insurgency. He declared war against India and dug trenches along the border; then, in the next breath, bent over backwards to appease India to get hold of Baluwatar Durbar.

Besides, India has had no basis to believe that Dahal could deliver what it wants even if he were sincere this time. It wants to bring Nepal, like Bhutan, under its security umbrella; increase its influence vis-à-vis China, its economic and strategic competitor; weaken Kathmandu by insisting on no more than two strong states in the Tarai; and tap into Nepal’s hydropower potential.

Nepal’s national leader would be the one who can keep India, China as well as Western countries in good humor. This is difficult. More so for Dahal if he does not change his mercurial character, mend his tattered trust, and shed his penchant for fooling all the people all the time.

Published in Republica


Published on 2013-05-13 01:08:18

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