Using power wisely


Like a mirage, the nearer we get to Parliament’s ratification of a $500 million US-backed infrastructure project, the farther it seems to recede. Given the fecklessness of Nepali politics, nothing is over until it is over.

After the Maoist parliamentary party on Wednesday morning decided to vote against the ratification of the American grant, a scheduled House session was postponed till Friday. A Maoist-Unified Socialists vote against the project would have effectively led to the collapse of the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress, who would have got help from the opposition UML to pass the project.

The Americans have set a firm 28 February deadline for ratification. The message to top Nepali leaders by US Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu last week may not have been a threatening ‘take our gift, or else’, but it was certainly a ‘take it or leave it’.

Part of the problem is the acronym itself. The Millenniumn Challenge Corporation (MCC) is too awkwardly named, its aims are not clear enough. And many ask: why are the Americans so keen to make us accept their gift anyway if there is no hidden agenda?

Read also:  China lobbying against MCC, Ramesh Kumar

Yes, geopolitics looms large. Nepal is used to being squeezed between China and India, but this time we are caught in a global Sino-US rivalry that has intensified since the rise of Xi Jinping and the Trump years. We are now a yam between three boulders – although the Indians are for once strangely silent.

Outsiders are playing on the incompetence and greed of Nepal’s rulers. None other than the country’s prime minister and his coalition partner write a groveling letter to the project team in Washington DC begging for more time to ‘build a consensus’.

All this makes King Mahendra smell like roses. In comparison to these lilliputs, Mahendra was a towering statesman who balanced regional geopolitics, and prevented Nepal from being sucked into the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.

When the Chinese built the Kodari Highway, there was consternation in New Delhi and pressure  on Nepal’s king who had just sent Indian security posts packing from Nepal’s mountains. India and China had just fought a brutal Himalayan war, and Beijing had every reason to consider Nepal an enemy nation since the Indian Army’s Gorkha battalions were on the frontlines in Ladakh and Arunachal.

Yet, Mahendra played deft diplomacy between New Delhi-Beijing-Washington-Moscow and got the superpowers to chip in to help with infrastructure and development projects.

Read also: To be or not to be on the MCC, Anil Shah

What a far cry all that is from what is happening today. By vacillating on a project that they themselves signed, Nepal’s leaders are coming off looking like fools who cannot be trusted. Who is going to take this bunch of clowns seriously anymore?

They have used a project that would have catalysed the future economic development of Nepal against each other for petty party infighting. Actually, $500 million is not peanuts, and Nepal has already pledged another $130 million to increase the capacity of transmission lines and improve highways in Central Nepal.

Borrowing that money would put Nepal deeper in debt. And we just have to see the current situation in Sri Lanka to realise what a real debt trap looks like. Colombo rejected a $480 million MCC two years ago by mishandling geopolitics and is now facing international ostracisation.

Read also: Putting the MCC in context, Jeevan R Sharma and David Seddon

It is at a time like this that Nepal needs a leader of Mahendra’s stature and skill. What would he have done? He would have approved both the MCC and the BRI, sent competent emissaries to keep Washington, Beijing and New Delhi happy. We do not even have ambassadors in those capitals.

The big powers have bigger fish to fry, Nepal is not as strategic as we imagine ourselves to be. We can convince them that investment in Nepal’s infrastructure will ensure domestic stability and regional energy security.

Nepal will soon have surplus electricity supply thanks to Rs215 billion investment by Nepali citizens in private power projects. It now needs help with distributing that power, for which the MCC project is crucial.

Nepal also needs help with connectivity, upgrading the country’s decrepit highways, adding railways and airports, and improving cross-border transit to India and China. That is where China’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI) would help.

Why does it have to be one or the other? Geopolitics is so polarised, and Nepal’s domestic politics so fractious that we have lost our ability to balance these forces for the country’s sustainable long-term economic wellbeing.

Read also: MCC: damned if we do, damned if we don’t, Nepali Times