Jaya Raj Acharya, PhD in linguistics from Georgetown University, is a well known scholar and former ambassador of Nepal to the United Nations. He has studied Nepal-India relations in depth. In the context of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit, he shared his insights on multiple areas of Nepal-India relations with Mahabir Paudyal and Kosh Raj Koirala.
Indian Prime Minister Modi is coming to Nepal after one of the worst phases in Nepal-India relations. How do you look at it?
The 2015 experience was unfortunate for both India and Nepal. After Modi’s rise to power in 2014 there was a window of opportunity to raise the relation between Nepal and India to a greater height. He had started well. He invited the SAARC heads of government to his oath-taking ceremony.
That was an unprecedented diplomatic gesture. His message was that he wanted to begin a new chapter in relations between India and SAARC countries but that did not happen. Modi must have been disappointed. We in Nepal feel bad about it too. There is an axiom in foreign relations: “There is a greater element of continuity than change in any country’s foreign policy.”
It appears to be hard even for a charismatic leader like Modi to change India’s foreign relation particularly in South Asia. Nehru also did not change India’s neighborhood policy substantively even after its independence in 1947.
But how are we to take the recent Indian gestures? Have our relations with India really improved?
We must say that Nepal-India relations have definitely improved as we are recovering from the experience of the blockade that was lifted after five long months of hardship. There is no more shortage of cooking gas, petrol, diesel and other essential goods at the moment. But much remains to be done.
Nepal and Nepalis today should also be smart enough to handle our relations keeping our national interest first, just like Prithvinarayan Shah and Jung Bahadur Rana had done.
Modi’s visit looks more like a pilgrimage, but sometimes non-diplomatic and non-political visits play just as much a diplomatic and political role.
Blockade did irreparable damage to Nepal-India relations. It’ll take a long time to heal the scars.
Where exactly do we stand on our relations with India at this point?
We are almost back to square one. The expectation that we would be able to start a new chapter in relation with India after Modi’s first visit to Nepal and his address to the Constituent Assembly was marred by 2015 experience immediately after the constitution promulgation. Why was India upset with the promulgation of constitution? What did we have to do to address Indian concerns? Why did Nepal’s constitution become India’s concern? It was purely our internal issue. On our part, why didn’t our leaders ask Indian leaders on what particular issues they had reservation. At least they should have asked: What is your take? What is the flaw in our constitution? What is your intention?
This would have triggered a rigorous discussion and they would be compelled to answer these questions. We would know what their reservation was. Nothing of this sort happened. It is said that continuous dialogue is a soul of diplomacy. We should have talked frankly at the high political and diplomatic level on mutual concerns. So I still see the great need to talk frankly with Indian leaders and officials so that we can enhance our bilateral relation and make it practically more development-oriented for both countries.
Our politicians and diplomats earn respect in India or elsewhere based on their personal stature, performance and intellectual abilities. That’s the hard fact.
Many in Nepal have demanded that Modi should apologize for the 2015 blockade. Do you think he will?
This sounds like a hypothetical question to me. PM Modi is a charismatic leader. If he says something to the effect of an apology, he may regain some of the lost goodwill of Nepali people that he had earned immediately after his address to Constituent Assembly in 2014. Blockade did an irreparable damage to Nepal-India relations. It’ll take long time to heal its scars.
It is said Modi’s visit to Janakpur is his strategy to influence voters across the border for upcoming general elections.
You should know Modi’s political background and cultural orientation. He is a BJP leader with his upbringing as an RSS cadre. His proposed visit to Janakpur was aborted in 2015 because of some political and diplomatic bungling on both sides. That was the beginning of our relations with him getting soured. Was there any harm in his visit to Janakpur in 2015? He is visiting it now any way and there seems to be no problem. Let him do his politics and diplomacy as he likes. Nepal and Nepalis today should also be smart enough to handle our relations keeping our national interest first, just like Prithvinarayan Shah and Jung Bahadur Rana had done.
Should not his first stop have been Kathmandu instead of Janakpur? Why do you think he chose Janakpur as first stop?
This visit looks more like a pilgrimage than a political, diplomatic or business-oriented visit. But such visits are also important. The recent participation of North Koreans in the Summer Olympics in South Korea marked the beginning of historic thaw in their relations. Sometimes non-diplomatic and non-political visits play just as much diplomatic and political role. In that sense, even if it is more like a pilgrimage, the visit surely has a diplomatic and political significance.
There seems to be huge opposition from people’s level regarding the government’s decision to accord him civic felicitations. What is the general practice? Are our PMs accorded similar receptions during their India visit?
I think the government has made a right decision. We should be forward-looking. We should not carry on the past grudges. Our politicians and diplomats earn respect in India or elsewhere based on their personal height, performance and intellectual abilities. That’s the hard fact of life for the leaders and diplomats of small countries.
It is also said that Modi is wooing Nepal to prevent her from getting further closer to China.
India’s relations with China have been marked by a sense of competition and cooperation at the same time. We can reasonably expect that India wants to keep its traditional relations with its South Asian neighbors under its control. But it’s a complex issue. These relations are different with different neighbors of India. Nepal had relations, however tenuous, with China even during the times of Licchavis and the Mallas.
These relations are growing stronger in the recent decades thanks to the development of transport and communication technology. The Himalayas are no longer insurmountable barrier. Now there are many air and road links between Nepal and China. We all should know that China itself does not want Nepal-China relations to be detrimental to China-India relations. Look at China’s volume of bilateral trade with India. It’s almost 80 times higher than that with Nepal. We have to make our relations with both our neighbors more productive in terms of our people’s prosperity. That should be the priority of all the three countries and their governments.
Nepal and India are so close, yet seem so far in a number of ways. How should Nepal handle relations with India in the days to come?
Look at our geography. We are so closely interlinked with India. Our daily life is so heavily dependent on it. The leaders and diplomats of both countries should realize this. We should make our relations development-oriented. Despite the economic growth in India, China and Nepal, there is considerable poverty in the rural areas of all the three countries.
It will take decades of efforts on war-footing for us to catch up with Western Europe and North America. And there are environmental issues interlinked with economic development. We have a long way to go and work very hard. We should persuade India that as a big country, it should have a greater heart in dealing with its smaller neighbors such as Nepal. And we must work constantly to cultivate our relations on the basis of equitable give and take.
Many see KP Oli as fast losing his nationalist credentials with the recent decision of the government to renew the term of the controversial Small Grants Project of Indian Embassy. What if other countries demand similar privileges?
We have to see this issue on a case-by-case basis. I see no harm in renewing Small Grants. In fact, we should encourage it. It’s not a question of “demand”, it’s our decision based on our need. Government of Nepal decides what it feels is necessary.
You have to see this issue from another perspective as well. Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali has denied that this government renewed the project. Supposing that it did, another picture comes out. Nepali Congress is branded as a ‘pro-India’ party.
If something terminated by the party that is considered as a ‘pro-India’ party is resumed by UML, which is also seen as ‘unfriendly’ to India, we should understand that there must have been some amount of pressure on this government, which it did not or could not resist. It must have been a compulsion on the part of the government.
Could not such compulsions have been avoided? Cannot we avoid them in the future?
We could and we can. The only way to do that if we become a Switzerland. That means we have to be strong enough in terms of economy, stability, rule of law, governance and many other such aspects. Switzerland is a landlocked country like us surrounded by big powers like Germany, Italy and France. But it does not take any pressure from them because it is self-sufficient in every aspect. Unless we become self-sufficient, resisting small grants projects could be detrimental. The best we can do is to bring such projects under the government. Even if we resisted it, they would find ways to operate such projects anyway. Or perhaps we should have suggested them the ways to change the modality of such projects. We failed on this front.
Some in the recent times have started to compare K P Oli with King Mahendra. What should be the immediate priorities of Oli government to safeguard the sovereignty of Nepal?
Development should be our immediate priority. Without economic and social development the nationalistic slogans become empty rhetoric. Even King Mahendra had realized that he was not as much successful in domestic policy of development as he was successful in policy of balancing our immediate neighbors and global super powers. Domestic policy is the goal. Foreign policy is a means to achieve it.
SAARC Summit has not taken place due to differences between India and Pakistan. What role can Nepal as the SAARC chair play to host the summit?
Frankly, SAARC has been a non-starter. It has had no achievement other than the uneasy summits held with considerable fanfare. It started with a good vision in 1985 but did not move much forward. Like I said, PM Modi must have some thought about it when he invited SAARC leaders to his oath-taking ceremony but the state of affairs remained the same afterwards. Nepal cannot do much besides hoping that the leaders of India and Pakistan will act like statesmen for the peace and prosperity in the region with a long-term vision, and realize the SAARC spirit.
India and China seem to be mending their relations after the Doklam standoff. What will be the implications of recent meeting between Modi and President Xi Jinping for Nepal?
India and China have their own agenda of peace and prosperity. Although we are in between, we should not expect Nepal to feature much in their bilateral meetings. We must understand that Nepal-India, Nepal-China and China-India relations are three separate issues. Chinese are realistic. They respect Nepal’s independence and sovereignty but they don’t believe that Nepal-China relations can be a substitute for China-India relations. As they cultivate their relations with India and other countries with their own national interest, they expect Nepal to do the same without hurting their immediate concerns.
How do you see the recent summit between North Korea and South Korea and the readiness of North Korea to give up its nuclear program?
It’s a very welcome move. Nepal should be happy about it. Nepal was in favor of nuclear-weapon free zones even during the time of cold war. In fact, Nepal is, will and should be in favor of nuclear-weapon free world. These weapons of mass destruction are a major threat to humanity. It is good that North and South Koreas are talking. I hope this process will culminate to unification of the two just like unification of Germany.