Deputy General Secretary of Nepali Congress and former Foreign Minister Prakash Sharan Mahat led the delegation of Nepali Congress leaders to India early this month on the invitation of ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Dubbed as a ‘party-to-party relations visit’ between BJP and NC, it was also seen in Nepal as a measure of Nepali Congress President and Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba to secure New Delhi’s support for his presidency in the upcoming General Convention of the party. What actually was the purpose of that visit? What was discussed with the BJP officials and foreign minister of India? What was India’s response? Nepal Live Today’s Siromani Dhungana and Mahabir Paudyal caught up with Mahat, who is also a close confidante of PM Deuba, to discuss various foreign affairs as well as domestic political issues.
Nepali Congress has long had working relations with the socialist parties of India. Is it shifting to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party that carries Hindutva as its core, now?
There has been an apparent ideological shift in the way of doing politics across the world. Extreme thoughts are being given up and there has been convergence of ideas and thoughts between politically different formations and groups. For example, there is no extreme capitalistic thought, or leftist thought or extremist rightist thought. They are no more mainstream thoughts today. All schools have started to give up extremism on their ideologies and develop a new mainstream thought which is accommodative, accepts the differences, cooperates, borrows and learns from each other. For example, nobody denies democracy, press freedom and individual liberty. There is a common thread to bind us together within the country or in the region. In India, for example, whether Indian National Congress or BJP is in power, certain fundamental tenets of state policies remain unchanged. There is a clear convergence of ideas in domestic politics of India as well. Rigidity of the past has become irrelevant. Things have changed a lot.
We should never present ourselves as friend to a certain country and a foe to another.
As for the Hindutva of BJP, let’s face it, every country has its own cultural and religious foundations and philosophies which guide the lives of people and social and political affairs of the country. Some countries may believe more in one faith, while others have their preferences for the other. India is a Hindu majority country with its people having strong reverence for Hinduism. India and Nepal have their own religion, culture and civilization that evolved through thousands of years. You cannot isolate yourself from your roots and civilizations.
Thus there is no need to raise hue and cry when a particular country attaches more importance to the culture, religion and tradition they hold dear. Even in Nepal, we need to take it normally when people talk about protecting and promoting their faiths. We need to respect the freedom of people to preserve and promote their faiths. We should not forget that Nepal as a nation is composed not just of geography. It is a collective expression of culture, language, religion and civilization.
Why did you have to establish ‘party-to-party’ contact with the BJP? What triggered the process?
We have had party-to-party relations with Communist Party of China too. They extend invitations to us on certain occasions and colleagues from our party attend their programs. Thus party-to-party relations are not new for Nepali Congress. But with the BJP of India, it is a new practice.
The best thing about such relations is that it allows you to interact with the party in power. Even if the party is not in power at the moment, they will rise to power someday. Then, it will be easier for both sides to communicate their concerns with each other because they are already familiar with the policies and conducts of each other. It also enables two sides to communicate their core national issues. It helps enhance understanding, which ultimately helps in strengthening relations between the two countries. Actually, promoting party-to-party relations is good for both the countries.
You met the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, who is reportedly believed to be a staunch advocate of Hindu state in Nepal. He must have sent some political message.
First of all, you need to clear this misunderstanding that Hindutva was the main cause of our visit to New Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. UP is the largest state of India with the largest population which has the longest border adjoining Nepal. We wanted to understand the UP’s perspective on Nepal-India relations. UP is home to the religious city of Banaras with which Nepal has historical relations. Nepalis used to go to Benaras to breathe their last or for penance and renunciation. It has a lot of cultural connections with Nepal. It is not necessary to interpret our visit to UP beyond this.
It has been a consistent policy of Nepali Congress not to allow Nepali soil to be used against China and India.
But it is an open secret that the BJP wants Nepal to return to Hindu state status. In Nepal, it is believed that BJP leaders must have talked about it with you. What did they say?
BJP leaders talked about the historical cultural ties between the two countries and the need to consolidate the ties. They were in favor of Nepali identity. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath was particularly appreciative of Nepal’s cultural and religious identity. I found that he has a much better view of Nepal. Adityanath clearly said that Nepal’s nationality must be strong and Nepal should rise as a strong nation. He said that only strong and nationalist Nepal will be good for India. There is a lot of goodwill among Indian leaders for Nepal. Nepal’s political leadership has not been able to capitalize on this goodwill.
Back home, you were expected to raise pressing concerns of Nepal vis-à-vis India such as the border issue and the death of Jaya Singh Dhami in Darchula, among others. Did you talk about it?
I have always argued that we need to communicate our concerns with India in the right place and with the right people. So I told them we do not raise the issues that need to be discussed between the leaders of the two countries in the streets. We are not like those who stoke ultra-nationalistic rhetoric in the streets but keep silent when they meet the leaders with whom they should actually raise the issues. The UML chief was raising a radical nationalist narrative in Nepal. To the people, he projected himself as the only nationalist leader of Nepal. But did he ever raise these issues with Indian leaders?
Do you suggest that you raised border issues and other concerns of Nepal with the Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar?
I did. I presented my concerns point-by-point. I spoke about the border issue including that of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura. I told him that we believe in raising our issues with the right persons in the right place. We don’t believe in creating hue and cry in the streets. We raise our concerns with facts, logic and evidence and you need to take our concerns seriously, I told him. Only then will our relationship stand on the ground of trust.
There is a lot of goodwill among Indian leaders for Nepal. Nepal’s political leadership has not been able to capitalize on this goodwill
I don’t say that the border issue can be resolved overnight. But we need to talk about it and keep talking about it. Only then will we reach a common ground and will be close to resolution. I told this to Jaishankar clearly. He actually appreciated the way we communicated our matters. The other concern I raised was about the tuin incident of Darchula. I said this is a real serious issue attached with the emotions of all Nepalis and you need to take it seriously and prioritize it. He said the Indian security force has no involvement in this. We said we also don’t believe the incident happened under the command of the central authority. Some mistakes may have happened at the lower level by some of the personnel there. We at least need to get to the bottom of the case, find out the truth and ensure such incidents will never repeat in the future. If the Indian side does this much, I said, it will send a huge positive message to Nepal. He said he would look into this matter.
India is positive about resolving issues with Nepal and developing the relations between the two countries based on trust and mutual understanding.
I raised the issue of vaccines and he said that the arrangement will be made immediately to get the vaccines delivered to Nepal. I also spoke about fertilizer imports and the impacts Nepali businesses and people have faced due to the sudden declaration of the demonetization policy in India and so on. I raised a host of other issues that are in the best of interest of Nepal.
I said that Nepali Congress is a nationalist democratic party and it will not compromise on national interests. I said we want to maintain the best of the relations with India but at the same time we also see a host of issues to resolve which India has to take initiative. He was very receptive as we put forth our concerns candidly. I found that he took all of our concerns very positively. I found that the government of India is positive about resolving issues with Nepal and developing the relations between the two countries based on trust and mutual understanding.
The context of the visit was regime change in Kathmandu, Nepali Congress government taking up border issues with China and the widely held perception in India that the Deuba administration is more India-friendly than its predecessor. What was the reaction from the Indian side?
First of all, we need to be clear that our relations with the foreign countries, whether India, China or the US or any other country, should always put Nepal and Nepal’s interests at the center. Which party is in the government is immaterial. The most important thing is Nepal and our national interests. We should never present ourselves as friend to a certain country and a foe to another. We are friends to all these countries just as they are good friends to us. We need to be able to see whether our interests and the interests of the neighbors converge. We need to promote convergence. While holding discussions with the leaders of the foreign countries and while signing bilateral deals with them, we always need to remember that we are there to represent Nepal and speak for and promote Nepal’s welfare. At least personally, I have always subscribed to this idea.
The Oli government’s foreign policy was deeply flawed. He was not able to handle the foreign policy in the best interest of Nepal.
You just said the Deuba government is India-friendly. Many have told me that the erstwhile government of KP Oli was tilting toward India in the later days and was trying to mend the fences. Nepali Congress and our government is not ‘pro’ one country and ‘anti’ another or vice versa. Unfortunately, Nepali political parties tend to project themselves along the ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ bandwagon. We tend to propagate certain issues with certain countries with exaggeration while presenting the similar issues with other countries with strong negative rhetoric. We should not do that. We tend to raise certain issue with nationalistic fervor while we tend not to speak about similar issue if it is related with another country. There should not be separate standards in our dealings with one country against others.
I said Nepali Congress is a nationalist democratic party, it will not compromise on national interests. I said we want to maintain the best of the relations with India but at the same time we also see a host of issues to resolve which India has to take the initiative.
We need to have a uniform standard policy in our conducts with foreign countries whether it is India, China or the US. We need to have equal standards in conducting our relations including in foreign aids. Once we start doing that, they will understand that Nepal’s policy is Nepal-centric and they should not worry about it. Then they will start respecting us.
India and China may be in rivalry. China and the US may be in confrontation. But while dealing with these countries we need to think of our interests, nothing else. This will give them no room for suspicion. When we tilt to one neighbor sometimes and to another other times, they will not trust us. Ultimately, Nepal will be at the receiving end.
We raised the border issue with India. Actually, Nepali Congress and all other parties supported the move of issuing the new map in May, 2020. That does not mean we should not allow the party to discuss the border issue with China. Some members of the party said that there are issues with the border with China and the government formed a committee to find out if that actually was the case. What’s wrong with it? If the investigation shows there indeed are issues, the government will talk to China and if there are no issues at all, it will be established that we have no border issues with China. It is as simple as that.
What is Nepali Congress’ foreign policy approach toward India and China?
It has been a consistent policy of Nepali Congress not to allow Nepali soil to be used against China and India. We should not keep close or distant relations with countries based on whether their political philosophy and system are similar to or different from ours. When it comes to the foreign relations it is our own nation which comes first.
During the time of K P Oli’s government, our neighbors were suspicious about Nepal because he deviated from the balanced foreign policy and started to present himself as more friendly to one country and ‘not so friendly’ to another country. There was no consistency in his foreign policy.
The largest grant has been offered by the MCC to Nepal and its process, modality, funding—everything is transparent. Yet we have been raising questions about it indefinitely. What message will it send?
You mean to say the foreign policy of the Oli government was deeply flawed?
It was deeply flawed. He raised high rhetoric and incited the people. But he was not able to handle the foreign policy in the best interest of Nepal. There were reports of his secret meetings with intelligence officials. They say that they raised the border issue in such meetings. Such issues have to be raised through formal channels in formal settings. We have a formal process and formal institutions through which we can raise such concerns. He did not allow this to happen. Political ideology of a party should not be allowed to guide and dictate the foreign policy. Once that happens, we will be caught in trouble. Hateful rhetoric also should not be allowed to influence foreign policy. But these became the norms during his rule. He appeared to be too close to one country at one time and he appeared to take a sudden shift toward another country in the later days. I would characterize Oli’s foreign policy as the weakest foreign policy we have had in many decades.
Your visit was also interpreted as an effort by the party president and prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba to secure support in his favor for the upcoming general convention. What’s the truth?
It’s got nothing to do with the upcoming convention of the party. Party cadres and colleagues decide who will be elected as office bearers and the president. It was a mere coincidence that our visit took place on the eve of the convention. The BJP has been developing ‘party-to-party’ relations with political parties of the countries in the region. Exchanges with Nepali Congress seem to be part of the same process.
Our relations with the foreign countries should always put Nepal and Nepal’s interests at the center.
It appears that the Deuba government has not been able to take decisions on crucial issues such as the MCC grant because of lack of consensus among the coalition partners. What is the truth?
The current government is the outcome of the circumstances created by the unconstitutional decision of the K P Sharma Oli to dissolve parliament. Congress was not for government change nor was it for forming the government under its leadership. The main objective of Congress was to prevent the derailment of the constitutional and democratic process that Oli had started. In the process, the political parties which opposed the unconstitutional move of Oli came together to form this government. In a sense, this government is a coalition of divergent ideologies. As such, you come to hear different opinions on different issues.
Is this the root cause of the deferral of the parliamentary endorsement of the MCC Compact?
Prachanda does not seem to be opposed to MCC Compact’s parliamentary endorsement per se. He says there should be more discussion about it. Individual leaders in the coalition parties might have their personal opinions but the parties as such are not opposed to the MCC grant.
We should not develop one set of conditions to receive loans, aids and grants from one country and a different set of rules for those coming from other countries. If we do that Nepal could end up becoming the battleground of the power centers. We have been receiving loans from certain countries, where the loan provider itself chooses the contractor and builds the infrastructure but we are not talking about it. Even an audit is done by them.
Some members of the party said that there are issues with the border with China and the government formed a committee to find out if that actually was the case. What’s wrong with it?
The largest grant has been offered by the MCC to Nepal and its process, modality, and funding — everything is transparent. Yet we have been raising questions about it indefinitely. What message will it send?
Finally, there are reports that Nepali Congress is also mulling early elections three months after assuming power. Why such a hurry?
Colleagues in the party have been giving their personal opinions about the early elections. But there have never been formal discussions about the matter in the party. However, the possibility cannot be ruled out because even if we go for it, it is going to take nearly around the same time as allowed by the constitutional provision.