At home and abroad

Nepal’s foreign policy must not be seasonal, or be determined by domestic political survival considerations

In late December, as police arrested a protester at Mandala into a police van with some force, a tv camera caught a voice from the crowd yelling at the van as it drove away: “Don’t kill him!”

This was not an exaggerated exclamation but one from genuine fear of harm because it followed the killing of two protesters outside a Korean labour recruitment office the previous day. 

The Mandala is like Kathmandu’s Hyde Park, and has over the years been the epicentre for all victims of the state machinery who have been denied justice. But after fears that pro-monarchy rallies would escalate, the government designated this and other areas restricted.

Since the ban, police have also arrested health and justice activist Govinda KC as well as human rights activists demanding transparency into the Ncell share acquisition case.

Then on Tuesday, protesters from the National Student Union were arrested for demanding that the ban on assembly at the Mandala be repealed and Nepalis “be given back their civic space”. Interestingly, the student union is affiliated to the ruling Nepali Congress, the largest party in Parliament and a coalition partner to the Maoist Centre.

The other gathering place for mass rallies used to be Khula Manch, which Kathmandu’s Mayor Balen Shah had been trying to turn into a three storey underground parking. After public outrage, he backed down but is now trying to turn it into an astroturfed football ground.   

The current coalition is squeezing the right to freedom of assembly and expression in installments. It throttled social media with a ban on TikTok last year. A slew of corruption scandals, impunity and lack of delivery has made the ruling coalition insecure, and its knee-jerk reaction has been to muzzle the messenger(s).

If only the coalition partners learnt from history that freedom of expression is a safety valve that lets the citizens let off steam. But that would be expecting too much wisdom from them. Clamping down can build up the pressure allowing civic outrage to take a dangerous and violent turn.

Even as Nepal’s leadership makes public spaces out of bounds, the opposition UML is preparing to take to the streets in a movement from February onwards to try to topple the fragile coalition. 

C K Raut’s Janamat Party this week withdrew support for the Madhes Province government following a power struggle with Upendra Yadav of the JSP. The coalition at the centre is now shakier because Raut has been dissatisfied at his party not being given any National Assembly seats. Elections for 19 seats of the Upper House took place on Thursday. 

But while Nepal’s leadership alienates itself further from its citizens at home, it has been tilting southwards on the geopolitical front. Nepal’s recent hydropower and investment agreements with India are emblematic of a significant shift in foreign policy. It seems Nepal’s traditional foreign policy of equidistance between India and China is askew. 

Nepal and India signed a 25-year energy trade deal during Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s visit to Nepal in early January for ‘Nepal’s electricity to get a market in India’. But it is clear to just about everyone in Nepal (except, it seems the government which is trying its best to keep everything hush-hush) that India’s intentions lie not so much in importing electricity from Nepal as getting free regulated water. 

India also increased its assistance through High Impact Community Development Projects (HICDP) from Rs50 million to Rs200 million. Grants like this can help spur Nepal’s development, but there are loud misgivings that the funds will not be channeled through the Finance Ministry, as it should, but via the Indian Embassy. It will be entirely up to India to choose who and what to fund, which actually is against the Constitution and federal policy on international cooperation. 

Unlike India-baiters in Nepal, we are not blaming New Delhi for flexing its muscle. Any large country will do the same to secure its long-term national interest. The blame lies in Nepal’s feckless leadership that is shamelessly kowtowing and selling our national interest down the river. 

Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal seems either unaware or indifferent to the long-term consequences of the decisions he has acquiesced to – so focused is he on keeping his coalition intact so that he can remain in the Prime Minister’s seat beyond the term limit he agreed with the NC’s Sher Bahadur Deuba. 

Nepal’s foreign policy must not be seasonal, or be determined by domestic political survival considerations. It must not be beholden to the whims of who is leading the country at a particular period of time. 

Shristi Karki

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