Covid-19 and the new Great Game

One of Barack Obama’s White House staffers once got into trouble for saying that a hurricane disaster presented a good opportunity for the administration to show it could get things done. It was politically incorrect, but true.

Indeed, here in Nepal, frequent natural disasters have been god-sent chances for governments of the day to prove themselves. We thought that would happen after the 2015 earthquake, but our rulers squandered the chance to invest in rebuilding with massive job creation. The Blockade was a time to rise to the occasion, and turn the crisis into an opportunity for the government to demonstrate it was serious about trade diversification and weaning Nepal away from petroleum dependency. 

This monsoon’s landslides and floods with unprecedented loss of life could have yielded political dividends if only Prime Minister K P Oli’s government was not so obsessed with an internecine power struggle within his ruling party.

The Covid-19 crisis offers the Oli administration a chance to take the advice of scientists and act decisively to cushion the blow on Nepal’s most vulnerable citizens. Instead, it has fallen back on business as usual, coddling cronies and now, as we near year-end, to tell Nepalis that they have to take care of themselves.

Nepal's leaders are in isolation, Editorial

To be fair, even the most accountable and well-governed countries in the world have been found wanting in dealing with the coronavirus crisis. Europe is struggling to contain the spread ahead of a predicted winter resurgence. In the United States, President Trump has no plan, and has surrendered to the virus. 

The Dasain break offered the government a chance to regroup and reassess its Covid-19 strategy. Alas, leaders of the two factions in the ruling NCP appear to have wasted the time to plot their next move to undermine each other. 

The surprise visit by Indian intelligence chief Samant Goel to Kathmandu on 21 October became another excuse for the two factions to lash out, and prove one was more nationalist than the other. NCP members loyal to Pushpa Kamal Dahal were having a go at their own prime minister, as if they were members of an opposition party.

Oli’s advisers did him no favours by flip-flopping on whether Goel was in Kathmandu on a private or official visit, and if he was sent by Prime Minister Modi, or invited himself. What got lost in all the Oli-slamming was that Goel also met Baburam Bhattarai at close quarters before he tested positive for Covid-19, as well as secretly meeting other Dahal loyalists. 

Declare a health emergency, Shekhar Kharel

It now appears that India’s top spook was indeed sent by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a trusted emissary to patch up strained India-Nepal relations, and address the perception spread by India’s jingoistic media that Nepal is drifting into the Chinese orbit. The timing is also significant -- it comes ahead of a three-day visit by India’s Army Chief Manoj Mukund Naravane on 4 November, which had been delayed by the pandemic. 

Naravane is well remembered in Kathmandu for his gaffe during the Limpiyadhura dispute in May during which he implied that Nepal was being egged on by China to stake its claim on its territory. This remark was criticised even in India for his insensitivity towards Nepali nationals serving in the Indian Army, some of them deployed in Ladakh. There is much confidence rebuilding that Naravane needs to do in Kathmandu.

The Goel jet dash to Kathmandu and the Naravane visit take on added meaning with the 2+2 meeting of top American and Indian foreign and defence officials in New Delhi on Tuesday, and the signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) – which despite its awkward acronym is essentially a bilateral strategic pact. 

Reconnecting India to rest of Asia, Pradumna B Rana

This is proof that the world is once more bipolar, as the Anglosphere plus Japan and India are pitted against China, and its growing dominance and influence in the world. With the flare-up in tension between India and China over their Himalayan border, Nepal has to tread carefully in this new Great Game between its giant northern and southern neighbours.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark Esper at India's National War Memorial in New Delhi on 26 October to pay homage to soldiers killed in the Ladakh clash in April. Photo: PIB India

Meanwhile, in Kathmandu US-China rivalry was taken to a new level with Dasain diplomacy. American ambassador Randy Berry made mutton curry while Chinese ambassador Hou Yanqi outdid everyone by singing the popular trekking song Resham FiriWe wonder if the allusion to the scarf waving in the wind was to the New Silk Road to counter the American-supported  MCC.

In the midst of all this high drama, it is easy for Prime Minister Oli to lose focus on the main crisis at hand -- managing the health and economic fallout of Covid-19. But it is a chance for him to use the disaster to prove that he can protect the people who elected him and his party to power.

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