Shortage of intellectual objectivity

Murari Sharma

A few deeply worrisome foreign policy developments have occurred in Nepal in recent months. Before the dust stirred by Prime Minister KP Oli’s visits to India and China has settled,  the India-EU statement and Mohana Ansari’s statement have put Nepal into sharp and unflattering diplomatic focus. However, much of it is a storm in a teacup generated by partisan arm-chair generals.

Sure, there are serious issues in which Prime Minister Oli should be held to account. For example, Oli has bragged big, but delivered little in the post-earthquake reconstruction, in bringing piped gas to your kitchen, and in phasing out river crossings on a single cable within two years.  He deserves criticism for his failure.

But he has also accomplished a few things. For instance, he has eased the Indian economic embargo without compromising Nepal’s vital interests, the embargo that was imposed before he became prime minister. He has signed the transit treaty, and opened the door for greater connectivity, with China.  He deserves credit for his success.

Strangely, that is not what you hear in the media or conversations. Some portray Oli as a spectacular success and others as an ignominious failure. Where has objectivity gone in Nepal?

More specifically, although the India-EU statement is unfortunate, it has been blown out of proportion. India, which has been facing minority revolts in Kashmir, West Bengal and elsewhere, should have resisted the temptation to display in the India-EU statement its heavy-handed dissatisfaction with Nepal’s new constitution, in solidarity with a small section of the Nepali population. But Indian politicians and diplomats are not always in their wisest.

At the same time, if Nepal’s diplomacy was proactive, it could have prevented the unflattering portrayal of Nepal in the India-EU statement. Unfortunately, our diplomacy is passive, and reactive at best. When I was new there,  a senior official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had advised me to keep my boss happy, my mouth shut, and my hands folded if I wanted to earn desirable postings, timely promotions, and a respectable retirement.

In other words, our system penalizes initiative. No wonder, our political parties look line personal fiefdoms of the leader; our bureaucracy and diplomacy are unresponsive, unproductive and inefficient; and our country is underdeveloped.

Once the India-EU statement came out, there is nothing wrong in expressing our displeasure through diplomatic statements, private conversations, and public speeches. I do not understand the fuss being made about it even by some established scholars, unless they have a political axe to grind.

That brings me to the issue of Ms. Ansari’s statement. A member of the National Human Rights Commission, she criticised the government of Nepal in the 31st session of the United Human Rights Council. Prime Minister K. P. Oli expressed his dissatisfaction with Ms. Ansari and the NHRC about the statement. The incident has unleashed a huge uproar in the NGO community.

This is genuinely the storm in a teacup. Let us start with a little background. Democracy is designed to be imperfect by building many checks and balances into  it. Government has the power and responsibility to protect and promote the country’s vital interests; courts, constitutional bodies, NGOs, the media, and international organizations work as watchdogs to prevent the government from straying away from democratic values and norms.

Democracy works best when all these important actors remain within their mandates and limits and tell each other when they think that the other has crossed its boundaries. There are very well established legal and conventional procedures for these actors to express their objections and reservations, but such sensitive communication should never be channelled through the media.

There is a very well established procedure for national independent public agencies, such as the NHRC, to present their reports and statements to United Nations bodies. They should first raise its concerns with the government and ask for a response. If the response satisfies them, these independent agencies should drop the concern. If the response is found inadequate or inappropriate, then they must present their case as well as the government’s response together to UN forums.

Against this background, Ms. Ansari and the NHRC are at fault on two counts. First, they either did not follow the due process at all or failed to reflect it in the statement given to the UN Human Rights Council. The statement raises several grave concerns about the human rights situation in Nepal, but it does not mention what the government response to them was; neither does it say that the government refused to respond. Therefore, Prime Minister Oli is right in reminding Ms. Ansari and the NHRC to follow the due process.

This happens elsewhere as well. For instance,  British Prime Minister David Cameron was accused of exercising political influence even over court sentencing of the 2011 London rioters, following the death of Mark Duggan in a police shooting.

Second, Ms. Ansari flouted her oath of office in which she had pledged, among other things, to maintain confidentiality of sensitive communication. Rather, she shared the content of the prime minister’s conversation with the media and international and domestic non-governmental organizations. Doing so would have been a culpable crime in any advanced democracy. Unless said otherwise, the communication of head of state and government to government officials is confidential.

It appears that Ms. Ansari and her organization have a distorted sense of independence. Even the Supreme Court is a branch of government in a broad sense; but it is independent of the executive branch. Similarly, the NHRC is part of the government but independent of the executive branch. Constitutional bodies are accountable to the parliament, which has established them, which appoints its members, and which fires its members through impeachment.

The bottom line, no taxpayer-funded organization, no matter how independent, should wash the dirty linen in public — in this case, in international forums — without reflecting both sides. Similarly, neither the government, nor the NHRC should be above the constitution and due process.

As BP Koirala has suggested, we the so-called intellectuals often fail to see right from wrong. It happens perhaps because many of us are pro-this or pro-that before we are pro-Nepal, pro-people, and pro-due process.  This is reflected in the write-ups of the many pundits who have written about Nepal-India and Nepal-China relations, the India-EU statement and Mahana Ansari’s statement.




Murari Sharma: Oli’s consequential visit to China

Nepal’s Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli has just returned from his China visit. Taken place a month after his India trip in February this year after the Indian economic blockade of sorts for nearly five months, Oli’s visit to China has, at least in principle, proved one of the most substantive and consequential  made by Nepali heads of state and government since 1950.

Often categorized as state, formal, official and informal based on the level of hospitality provided by the host country, high-level visits fit more meaningfully into the substantive and diplomatic silos in terms of their utility. Those visits that result in groundbreaking decisions between countries, such as signing a peace agreement after a war, inking a major treaty, inaugurating mega joint projects, establishing a new bilateral or multilateral organization, and so on would be substantive. Because they are groundbreaking, they are also rare.

Heads of states and government also visit each other to get to know each other, to renew the existing ties, to project one’s personality and priority, to sell their ideas, to smooth procedural roadblocks, and so on. Agreements of regular nature and of limited significance could also be signed on such occasions. More frequent, such trips are procedural, diplomatic in nature.

Although Oli’s recent China visit had the get-to-know-each-other element, it was one of the few substantive sojourns made by Nepali heads of state and government. The trade and transit agreement signed in Beijing during his trip was a landmark decision in the same way as the accord on the Kathmandu-Kodari Highway was at the time King Mahendra. The highway had opened the first road access between Nepal and China, and an infuriated India had imposed economic sanctions on Nepal.

Sure, the transit agreement is important more in symbolism and less on practical use. First, the distance to Tijuana, three times more than Kolkata, would make the transit cost prohibitive. Second, the transit facility would require infrastructures — a warehouse, containerized trucks capable of passing through high altitude or similar railway wagons, clearing and forwarding agents, etc. — to make it functional. Operating and maintaining them would be expensive, and if they are not kept up to date, they cannot be used when necessary. Third, there will be operational difficulties associated with differing political systems, controls, and sensitivities.

However, the very fact this facility could be used if absolutely necessary would dissuade India from imposing another economic embargo without a serious thought. If push comes to shove, Nepal can use this transit route to import essential supplies, such as petroleum products and medicines, rather than flying them in from Singapore, as it had done during the Indian economic blockade of 1989/90.

Several other agreements reached during the visit were also no less important for the two countries, especially for Nepal. China has agreed to work out a mechanism to supply petroleum products to Nepal. When this is done, Nepal will free itself from the Indian monopoly on fuel supply. China has also agreed to provide 3-billion RMB assistance for the next three years, and to strengthen connectivity between the two countries by maintaining the existing roads and considering building a new road, a railway link, and two transmission lines.

If all these proposals translate into tangible products, Oli’s China visit would be by far the most consequential by any Nepali head of state or government. However, will India allow the implementation of the agreements and understandings with China anytime soon? Will Nepali leaders defy the Indian pressure?

Probably not. History may help us understand why.  New Delhi had prevented Chinese contractors from executing the Kohalpur-Banabasa portion of the East-West Highway in Nepal under the World Bank finance years ago and committed to doing the project with its grant assistance. India took decades to complete that portion of the highway.

It will not be just Chinese contractors this time; it will be the Chinese government itself. Though India-China trade has momentously increased over the past decades, they have become more sensitive about their interests. Beijing, New Delhi feels, is seeking to encircle India. It supported the former President Rajapakshya of Sri Lanka to suppress the long-drawn Tamil armed insurgency there, disregarding the Indian opposition. It has already sidelined India in Myanmar. And it has been reaching out more than before to Bangladesh, Bhutan and Pakistan. India endeavors to protect its interest in the region.

In this context, both India and China want to secure their vital interests in Nepal. They had viewed the monarchy as a pillar of stability and moderation. After Nepal abolished its monarchy and became a federal republic, both neighbors, worried about the political fluidity in Nepal, want to shore up their interests in the new ambiance.

Before Nepal’s constitution was promulgated on 20 September 2015, both China and India wanted it suit their needs. China was opposed to ethnic states along the Nepal-China border area where Western organizations have been massively funding proselytization of the minorities, fearing that they could provide a staging pad for anti-China activities.  Even though the constitution has been issued without single ethnic states, the threat has not vanished, for the minority groups have not abandoned their demand for ethnic states.

India pressed Nepal for liberal citizenship provisions and only one state, not more than two states, in the southern plains of Nepal, hoping that this arrangement would give the pro-Indian Nepali population living along the Nepal-India border a decisive voice in Kathmandu. Since the constitution divided the plains into several states, India imposed an economic blockade of sorts and restricted the flow of petroleum products, construction materials and medicines for nearly five months. Though the sanctions were lifted to facilitate Oli’s India visit, New Delhi has not abandoned its demand.

Nepal amended the constitution to accommodate most of India’s demands, but it has not satisfied India because its demand for the state/s has not been fulfilled.  India has strategic and economic interests. It wants to keep Nepal, which is under its security umbrella, to remain firmly there. It believes a powerful state in the plains would prevent Kathmandu from inching towards Beijing. It also wants to tap Nepal’s Karnali, Gandaki and Koshi rivers to develop hydropower and to irrigate its parched northwestern states of Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana and Delhi, which it is seeking to by diverting these rivers.

Although the Bharatiya Janata Party government would prefer to see Nepal remain a Hindu country as it was before 2006, the strategic and economic interests are paramount for India.

Evidently, the Indian blockade was definitely a factor in the agreements on trade and transit, on fuel supply, and on increased road and rail connectivity between Nepal and China.  The imposition of the economic blockade has only alienated the Nepalis with India and forced them towards greater economic integration with China.

However, Oli’s consequential visit could turn out to be a damp squib if India uses its power to topple his government. Keep your finger crossed and hope for the best.