| June 27, 2019

Focus on building trust with India not on inking controversial deals

Focus on building trust with India not on inking controversial deals
Rajan Bhattarai, a PhD in international relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, is thought of as Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli's close confidante as well as his trusted advisor on foreign policy. Recently nominated as a member of Nepal's Eminent Persons Group for revision of past treaties with India, the CPN-UML lawmaker is also accompanying the prime minister on his India visit starting February 19th. Biswas Baral and Thira Lal Bhusal caught up

Bhattarai on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the prime minister's trip.
How do you evaluate the prime minister's India visit in the historical context of India-Nepal relations?

Our geography is such that we cannot afford to have bad relations with India. India has had a role in political developments in Nepal since the Treaty of Sugauli in 1816. Even independent India has given continuity to relations established by the British rulers. This was as evident during the 1950 movement for democracy as it was during the recent peace process in Nepal when India played an active part in bringing the two warring sides together. This is the context in which India-Nepal relations have to be understood.

There are two schools of thought on contemporary India-Nepal ties. According to one, since India has traditionally had a big role in Nepal, just because Nepal now is a stronger country able to make its own decisions, it cannot suddenly minimize India's traditional role. The other school of thought, which I subscribe to, is that all countries pass through certain stages in the process of state building and that relations between states constantly evolve. I believe that the first mindset is prevalent in New Delhi. But it also has its adherents here in Nepal.

So you believe that this mindset contributed to the Indian blockade?

Yes, it was in this context that we promulgated the new constitution on September 20th. It was a purely internal affair of Nepal, even as we were aware of the vital interests of our neighbors. Or that was how we felt. But what happened after we had the new constitution was entirely unexpected. We hadn't even imagined that Nepali people would be so victimized for making their own constitution. So the focus now should be not just to return to status quo ante but to redefine Nepal-India relations in this changed context. This is what the prime minister will focus on during his India trip.

How do you evaluate the relationship between Oli government and India in the past four months since Oli came to power?

KP Oli has been an important part of all vital political developments in Nepal in recent times. He has also closely followed India's recent role in Nepal. So the belief that he doesn't understand India or that he is not aware of Indian interests in Nepal or that he is unaware of the aspirations of Nepali people is erroneous. To the contrary, I believe he is acutely aware of our national interests and how to best protect them. He has always emphasized the need to look at the country's long-term interests rather than go after short-term benefits. This has been evident even in his negotiations with other political parties, including on the most important agenda of federalism. It was under his initiative that the Indian blockade was lifted. It is under his initiative that the Madheshi parties are now in negotiations. I believe there is a growing realization, both in India and Nepal, that KP Oli is someone who understands ground realities and is committed to finding solutions to existing problems.

In your reading why do you think India decided to lift the border blockade?

The way I see it, we should never have come to this situation. The reasons for which the blockade was imposed were not based on facts. It was due to the result of a false propaganda that certain communities were systematically discriminated by the new constitution. When India understood this fact, and when we too showed our commitment to remove the few flaws in the new constitution through timely amendments, there was then no reason to continue with the blockade.

Let us for a moment assume that certain people in the country were unhappy with the new constitution. But isn't that the case in all democratic societies? There are legitimate ways to handle such dissent. But when you have accepted to play the game, you cannot say midcourse that you will no more abide by its rules. When India understood these things, the blockade was lifted.

Can you enumerate for us the foreign policy priorities of Oli government?

Since the time it assumed office, the priority of Oli government was to end the state of scarcity of vital necessities and to ease the daily lives of common people. This is still our priority. We also have to understand that foreign policy is only an extension of domestic policies. So now that the prolonged period of transition has come to an end, we need to institutionalize recent gains and to move to a stable political environment. We need to implement the new constitution. Along with this we need to push the long-pending development agenda. So our priority in dealing with other countries also has to be to Nepal's economic development. This should be our focus.

There have been growing calls for expansion of diplomatic and economic links with China following the blockade. How do you read the India-China-Nepal dynamics?

Nepal is located in an extremely sensitive geopolitical location. Yesterday, China was occupied with itself and it had not yet risen as a global power. Now China is a global power and India is also well on its way to becoming one, so it is natural that there will be some changes in the region as well. As they grow as competing global powers, the sensitivities of India and China also increase. We need to identify and adjust to those sensitivities.

But there is another part of this dynamics as well. Nepali people have already faced three blockades in less than fifty years. Now we need to ensure that future generations will not have to face another blockade. Traditionally, we have said that Nepal is landlocked but it is actually India-locked. Otherwise, when we talk about our rights as a landlocked country, why do we only look at India? Isn't it also China's responsibility to give Nepal its transit rights? China is as obliged under international law. With the Chinese roads and rails coming right up to Nepal border, we can no longer say that Tibet is inaccessible to Nepal. So why don't we explore new prospects with China? Why don't we diversify our trade with China so that India in the future is not in a position to impose a blockade? Our government is exploring all these options.

It is believed that growing Chinese inroads into Nepal is partly responsible for all three Indian blockades. Why do you think we been unable to take India into confidence over China?

The way I see it, we must be able to convince both our neighbors as well as the international community that Nepal does not compare its relations with one sovereign state with its relations with another sovereign state. Nepal-India and Nepal-China relations have completely different dimensions. You cannot compare them. What Nepal should be mindful of is that while it looks to enhance its relations with either India or China, their core interests are not compromised. We should be able to convince them that Nepal won't allow its territories to be used against the interest of either of its neighbors. This calls for tactful diplomacy.

But India needs to review its traditional approach in dealing with Nepal as well. Let me give you an example. Nepal first asked for access to the Phulbari-Bangla corridor to trade with Bangladesh back in 1967. But India declined access saying that its security would be compromised. But when Inder Kumar Gujaral became the Indian prime minister in 1997, he changed the old Indian policy and Nepal was allowed to use the corridor. It has been 19 years since Nepal started using the corridor and not a single security-related issue has cropped up. Perception matters in international relations. Once you change your perception, new avenues open up. If the Indian and Chinese heads of states can meet one another four or five times a year to discuss economic and trade-related issues, why can't Nepali leaders similarly meet Chinese leaders to enhance bilateral cooperation?

You talk about diversification through greater engagement with China. But little seems to have been done since the Oli government came to power.

After the blockade, the level of urgency in Nepal to expand into China suddenly increased. But you cannot overlook our geographic constraints. Not just that. International negotiations and treaties don't happen overnight. They have their own pace. This does not mean that we are not doing anything. Prime Minister Oli will visit China after he comes back from India. I am confident there will be some agreements during that trip.

During the prime minister's visit do you see the possibility of an extradition treaty with India, something Indians have long wanted?

During this trip we are not in favor of taking up potentially controversial issues that first need to be discussed among stakeholders in our own country—and certainly not in such volatile times. What kind of extradition treaty do we want? What are the views of different political parties in Nepal about such a treaty? Without first clarifying these issues it would be immature to sign such an agreement.

What kind of agreements are you aiming at while in India?

We need to be first clear about what are our priorities right now. Our biggest priority right now is how to ease the daily lives of Nepalis. It is in Nepal's interest to give a message to the international community that its government is working in this direction. Foreign investors now feel that Nepal is not even in a position to import vital goods, that India has discretionary powers over its transit rights and that there is that there is widespread political instability in Nepal. We need to change this perception of Nepal. So we should not see the current India visit only in terms of certain agreements or treaties. We should rather be looking at what is our priority right now, which, as I said, is easing people's lives disrupted by the blockade and the unrest in Tarai. We will also explore ways to expedite both old and new bilateral projects, as well as to get India to clarify and honor its post-earthquake commitments for reconstruction.

Will Prime Minister Oli during his India visit also look for clear commitment from India that it won't again resort to coercive tactics like blockade?

Yes. We must clearly tell the Indian leadership that the blockade caused great hardship in Nepal and seek India's commitment that such actions won't be repeated. We will tell them that the blockade not just harmed Nepal and its people; it also did irreparable damage to the age-old India-Nepal relations. But is that enough to ensure that there will be no blockade in the future? I don't think so. We must also explore other alternatives.

Some suspect that the Indian blockade could return after our prime minister comes back. Do you see that possibility?

Frankly, no. The border blockade has not just affected Nepal. There have been many voices within India who have questioned the rationale behind the blockade, including former prime minister Manmohan Singh. So I don't see India repeating its mistake. But we here in Nepal also need to explore why such a blockade had to be imposed in the first place. Now that the constitution has been amended in line with the demands of the Madheshi parties and we are close to an agreement on formation of a political mechanism to resolve federal boundary dispute, we can also credibly say to the Indians that look, we have done our best to solve our internal issues, and now you keep your side of the bargain.

Why is the prime minister making India the first stop?

First, Narendra Modi was the first person to invite new prime minister KP Sharma Oli to come visit India right after his oath-taking ceremony. Second, such trips are determined by government priorities and the country most closely linked to those priorities. For example, formerly, most American presidents and secretaries of state used to make the Great Britain, Germany or France their first stop on assuming office. Now they visit China first, or they are the first to invite the leader in China. Similarly, even during the best of times Nepali prime ministers go to India first because Nepal's core interests are most closely linked to India. Now, in the aftermath of the blockade, when India-Nepal ties are at a low, it is even more important that we go there and clear misunderstandings. This should not be understood in terms of India daring Nepali prime minister to go elsewhere first. That is not how things work today.

Will it send a wrong message to New Delhi if the political mechanism to sort out federal boundaries is not set up before the prime minister's visit?

I don't think it will. We will tell the Indians that we are trying our level best to sort our internal issues through dialogue. Even if we have no political mechanism by the start of the visit on Friday, we will at least be able to say that we have made every effort. This should be our message not just to India but to all members of the international community.

Can you enlist for us the three priorities of the prime minister during his India visit? And what will be the three priorities of his subsequent China trip?

With India, we will look to clear recent misunderstandings. This does not mean returning to status quo ante but taking India-Nepal ties to a new height based on new understanding of the two peoples and political leaderships. Two, we will seek India's support for the projects of our national interest that are in line with our new development agenda. Three, we expect Indian help in post-earthquake reconstruction.

During the prime minister's China trip, the first priority will be to explore ways to benefit from China's rapid economic development. The second priority will be infrastructure development of our northern districts connected with China's Tibet. The third priority would be to ensure that Nepal gets transit facilities through China, which will then pave the way for more trade and investment.

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