As the head of a coalition government that has political parties which share a history of animosity, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal will need to be more flexible and accommodating. He is indeed making extra efforts to match his often repeated words — that he has learnt from his mistakes during his first eight-month long tenure as prime minister in 2008 — in deed. At home he has become less acerbic and critical towards the Opposition.
And, he seems eager to strike a “balanced relationship” with Nepal’s two neighbours. Even before he could appoint a new foreign affairs minister, Dahal dispatched his two deputy prime ministers, K.B. Mahara and Bimalendra Nidhi, as special emissaries to Beijing and New Delhi respectively, to convey his desire to have a balanced relationship with both the countries and to seek support for Nepal’s economic growth and development.
The emissary diplomacy comes at a time when New Delhi has been unable to conceal its happiness over the exit of K.P. Oli, who it perceived to be pro-China, from the PM’s office. China, however, is visibly concerned about the fate of its involvement in Nepal, including in constructing the country’s first international airport outside the capital. Besides enhancing trade and transit relations, China has been promoting the image that for Nepal “China is indeed a friend in need”. However, China appears uneasy and suspicious about the future of its projects after the change of guard in Kathmandu.
Expectedly, the Chinese leaders including Prime Minister Li Keqiang raised these concerns when Mahara visited them. Mahara assured them that Nepal will implement and honour all the agreements and understanding arrived at when Oli was prime minister. China also made it clear that while it is in favour of Kathmandu strengthening its ties with New Delhi, there was no question of Beijing retreating from Nepal. Beijing promised to continue its projects and facilitate Nepal’s development, but indicated that this would be easier if there was political stability in Kathmandu. Most importantly, despite the emerging perception that India is back in the driving seat of Nepali politics, the proposed visit of Chinese president Xi Jinping to Kathmandu is on as per schedule.
So, what is the rationale behind Dahal starting his stint as PM by sending emissaries to neighbours? Prime Minister Dahal told this columnist that he wanted to maintain balanced relations with both, and dispel the impression that Nepal was moving closer to one neighbour and provoking the other. A day before Deputy Prime Minister Nidhi left for Delhi, Indian ambassador, Ranjit Rae, announced that the dates and details of the visit of Prime Minister Dahal and President Bidhya Devi Bhandari to India and that of Indian President Pranab Mukherjee to Nepal, the first such visit since President K.R. Narayanan in 1997, will be worked out soon.
Nepal’s current political actors — in the government and in opposition — who have been part of an agreement that India mediated in late 2005 feel more comfortable with Mukherjee, who played an active role then as a Congress minister, than with Prime Minister Modi, who they suspect to be less enthusiastic about Nepal’s journey towards becoming a secular republic.
But President Mukherjee is only a constitutional head. However, his visit when he has just an year to go in Raisina Hill, is likely to signal that despite India being blamed for micro-managing affairs in Kathmandu, post 2006, the BJP government is not contemplating any significant changes in its Nepal policy.
Dahal may not raise the issue of “micro-management” for now. But the lack of trust or respect for India is not confined to “Hill or Kathmandu elites”, as a section of Indian policy makers have been claiming. The sentiment is prevalent across regions, including in Madhes, especially after the economic blockade that resulted in the shortage of essential goods last year.
Following Nidhi’s visit to New Delhi, the frequency of VVIP visits to both capitals is likely to increase. But it is too early to guess how much clout and respect India is likely to gain vis a vis China in Nepal. Moreover, political stability in Nepal, which both India and China emphasise, can’t be ensured merely through a diplomatic balancing act. It calls for involving the people of the hills, mountains and Madhes in settling the contentious issues in the constitution.