Nearly one and a half years after the Nepal Communist Party came to power upon winning a landslide victory in parliamentary elections, high expectations have been dampened by the performance of the government. Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli and his government have been embroiled in various controversies related to deteriorating law and order, a rise in violent activities of the far left, control over freedom of expression and infringements into cultural sentiments, among others.
It had been expected that a stable government would end the long-drawn-out transition that Nepal was going through during the last two decades. However, the uncertainty in domestic politics and slow pace of the government’s actions are slowly becoming visible, which in turn is bound to have bearings on Nepal’s international relations.
Economic figures have shown a substantial decline in foreign direct investment into Nepal since the formation of the Oli government. It received some respite recently when the World Bank lauded the economic policies and measures taken by the finance minister, which the government believes will yield positive outcomes in the long run. Political stability is a precondition for development. With a nearly two-thirds majority in parliament, the Oli government should have been able to produce tangible results within the first year toward fulfilling its professed motto of “Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepali.”
Domestic politics is a major determinant of a strong foreign policy advocated by any state. Nepal’s crucial geopolitical location dictates that it should try to gain maximum benefits from both its big neighbors without trying to balance one neighbor against the other.
Relations with India have seen their ups and downs in recent years. The re-election of Narendra Modi as India’s prime minister is an apt moment for the Oli government to reinvigorate bilateral relations. The close cultural and people-to-people relations between the two states are unparalleled. India is also Nepal’s leading trade and development partner. Nepal, a predominantly Hindu nation, should make every effort to gain the goodwill and support of Modi, who is a devout Hindu himself. To elevate the ties to greater heights, India should do away with its traditional hegemonic attitude in dealing with Nepal, whereas Nepal should also rid itself of the fear arising from “small state syndrome.” It is needless to mention that a stable neighborhood would always be in the best interests of India too from the security perspective.
In spite of the age-old ties between Nepal and India, one can still feel that there is some level of lack of trust between the Oli and Modi governments. Therefore, Kathmandu should increase its engagements at various levels with New Delhi. The appointment of career diplomat Subrahmanyam Jaishankar as India’s minister of external affairs caught the attention of Nepalese media because he was instrumental in adopting harsh measures in the aftermath of the promulgation of Nepal’s constitution in 2015. While it may be premature to assume that he is still holding personal grudges, it is also worthwhile to note that he has not shown much interest in engaging with his Nepali counterpart since assuming office.
It is most important for world leaders to build personal rapports that can be extremely useful in navigating tough diplomatic situations. Oli and Modi should take personal initiatives to polish bilateral relations, as both leaders have strong mandates at their disposal.
Nepal’s relations with China have grown from strength to strength over the years. However, Beijing is still not fully convinced by the behavior of Nepali leaders who tend to fall back on China only when relations with India are not so cordial. Oli has a tremendous opportunity to elevate relations with China to the highest level in history.
The Indo-Pacific Strategy is turning out to be a major foreign-policy initiative of the United States as a countermeasure to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. There are high chances of small states like Nepal getting caught into great-power struggles. The late American political geographer Nicholas Spykman famously said, “Geography does not argue. It simply is.” So can Nepal afford to defy geography and its political relations with China by totally embracing the US, which is located in another hemisphere?
The Oli government should be crystal clear in its foreign policy regarding the management of the interests of great powers. Nepal should obviously maintain good relations with the only superpower in the world, but it would be prudent for it to prioritize its own national interests first.
Nepal’s sole priority at the moment is economic prosperity. Because of its lack of resources, it is not possible for Nepal to achieve the desired goals on its own, and it needs support from its immediate neighbors as well as major foreign powers. To this effect, it must have the policy to engage with all concerned, but at the same time be alert on the regional and global power dynamics that are appearing fluid at the moment.
Global politics has become so uncertain that old allies are feuding with one another and traditional rivals are warming up to each other. Therefore, the Oli government should lay the ground for an effective foreign policy by first ensuring a stable domestic political environment with consensus on key agendas. If such a condition cannot be ensured, chances of foreign meddling and undue influence increase drastically. Nepal should make every effort not to make itself a geopolitical chessboard.