Rajan Bhattarai, a PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, served as the Foreign Affairs Adviser to erstwhile Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli. A Central Committee member of CPN (UML) who represented Nepal in the Eminent Persons Group (EPG), he is considered an intellectual voice within UML in foreign policy and diplomatic affairs. Siromani Dhungana and Mahabir Paudyal caught up with him to elicit his insights on foreign policy conduct of Sher Bahadur Deuba government, Nepal’s dealings with India, China and the US and many other issues. Excerpts:
Members of your party have begun to criticize foreign policy conducts of the Sher Bahadur Deuba government. Where do you see the flaws?
I want to take you back to 2015 when Nepal was in the process of promulgating its constitution and when there was a flagrant foreign interference to defer and delay the process. We stood up against this interference. We clearly said that the date of the promulgation cannot be deferred. Then the blockade followed. The rest is history.
Back then the general understanding among the parties was that the constitution would be promulgated under the leadership of Sushil Koirala and after that he would pass the baton to K P Sharma Oli. Many Congress leaders have admitted this in public. But a faction within Nepali Congress was not happy about this agreement. So they fielded Koirala as the PM’s candidate, pitting him against Oli.
Notwithstanding, Oli was elected PM by parliament who had to face months’ long blockade. But the country and the people, regardless of their political ideologies and orientations, stood united against the blockade. Situation later normalized but we established a new standard in that resistance against the blockade.
The 2015/16 was the watershed moment for Nepal’s political sphere. We established that when it comes to taking major crucial decisions on internal politics, Nepal will do it independently, it will no longer follow the command of any foreign power. This broke a long held perception and the trend that Nepal seeks consent and support from the south in its major political decisions. We sent a message loud and clear to everybody: Nepalis decide what laws and policies they want to be governed by, Nepal makes major political decisions independently. We set a benchmark that the relations between the countries are guided by the principle of sovereign equality. This is how we set a new standard in our foreign policy in 2015.
Are you hinting that the government of Sher Bahadur Deuba is regressing on the ‘new standard’ you are talking about?
There are indications that it is. First, there was an unprecedented national consensus in parliament when Nepal issued a new political and administrative map to include Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura and Kalapani in it. This happened when we were in the government and we had been constantly working to advance the process to bring that land back to Nepal. We raised this matter with the Indian Foreign Minister in the Nepal-India Joint Commission meeting in January, 2021. Pradeep Kumar Gyawali raised this matter with S Jaishankar where they agreed to continue the discussions to resolve the border matters. Now that process does not seem to be anywhere in the priority of the government. When it no longer becomes our priority they [Indian side] will no longer see it as their priority. In four months since the new government was formed, I have not heard about the government raising this matter with India through an official channel.
Second, we prepared the EPG report. The EPG report is a consensus document with feedback and inputs from all the political parties in Nepal and it seeks to correct some of the historical wrongs and resolve nearly all the issues Nepal and India have had. In consensus, the EPG teams from India and Nepal have addressed nearly all the issues that have remained contentious in the last 70 years. Should not this government pursue this matter with as much priority as accorded by KP Oli’s government?
2015/16 was the watershed moment in Nepal’s history. We established that when it comes to taking major crucial decisions on internal politics, Nepal will do it independently, it will no longer follow the command of any foreign power.
Third, a Nepali citizen died when the tuin crossing was cut off from the Indian side. Reports have shown that the SSB personnel were responsible for the incident and that the tuin rope was cut off deliberately. Should not our government take up this matter with urgency? Should not the government demand an explanation from the Indian side?
You were a member of EPG yourself. Can you tell us why the Indian side is reluctant to accept the report?
I also wonder why India is not showing willingness to accept the report prepared by independent eminent persons of the two countries. The formation of EPG was a joint effort by the governments of India and Nepal. It was conceptualized at the highest political level and executed by the highest authorities in both the countries. The EPG report is a consensus document with signatures from EPG representatives from their side as well as ours. The delay and reluctance seen in India to accept the report is baffling.
For me, the delay in acceptance of the EPG report is one indication of how difficult it is to sort out issues with India.
In the last meeting of EPG, we decided that we will first submit the report to the Prime Minister of India. Then all eight of us would come to Kathmandu and submit the report to the Nepal Prime Minister. And then we would make the report public officially with the permission of the two governments. This was our plan. We decided to submit it to the Indian PM first because the EPG report is of a huge importance to us, for it contains recommendations to resolve many contentious issues between India and Nepal. Our counterparts from India sought time from the Indian PM to submit the report; they have not been able to secure time. Perhaps they have not been given time.
You faulted the government for not pursuing the Kalapani, Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura issue but even your government was not talking about it in the latter days.
How can you say that? We initiated talks and we had talks with the Indian foreign minister on this matter. Some people accuse us of not handling the map issue diplomatically. That’s very untrue. From our side, we made a number of diplomatic correspondences when the Indian side published its new map by including our land in their map. We were open and flexible for talks. Then the Indian government opened a road link through the land that belongs to us. Only when our diplomatic overtures to resolve the matter through talks were not properly responded to, Nepal stood up to issue its new map in May 2020. Before that we had sent a number of notes to the government of India to which India was not responding.
After the telephone talks between the two prime ministers in August that year, a series of visits from Indian officials took place. We had rounds of talks which opened the process for taking the map issue to a logical end. It was one major agenda in meetings between foreign ministers of the two countries in January 2021. There has not been any progress on it since the new government came to power.
Some argue that the new map could become a diplomatic trap for Nepal. Is it like this?
Look, border issues cannot be resolved overnight. That is there but Nepal is not going to backtrack from its May 2020 decision. We have claimed those territories based on evidence and facts. India may ignore our concerns for some of the time but this issue will keep gnawing India. That they have taken some patches of territory from a small neighboring country of Nepal will continue to trouble the collective psyche of the Indian rulers.
Nepalis will keep raising this issue for generations and generations. They will keep asking why India has not returned our land. My point is due to divisions among the internal political actors in Nepal, they may be able to ignore the matter for some of the time but this is not going to die down. Nepali national consciousness is not weak. It is built on long and deep historical memories. India may assume that there is a reasonable silence in Nepal about this matter at the moment but it will keep dampening India’s international image. Internationally, India will be perceived as a country that is occupying the territories of a small country of Nepal.
Internationally, India will be perceived as a country that is occupying the territories of a small country of Nepal if it refuses to address the border issue with Nepal.
This is precisely what KP Oli told Samant Goel. ‘The land belongs to us. You need to return it to us and withdraw your troops from Kalapani territory,’ Oli told him clearly.
When your party was in the government it failed to push MCC Compact nor were there tangible outcomes on BRI. Your party’s position on MCC Compact seems to be fraught with double standards at the moment.
Let me start with the MCC Compact. Nearly all the top leaders of all the political parties are somehow the parties to MCC Compact. They followed the process of developing the Compact. It was signed when Sher Bahadur Deuba was PM, Gyanendra Karki Finance Minister and Krishna Bahadur Mahara Foreign Minister.
In that sense, we are not a direct party to the MCC but when we returned to power after the 2017 general elections, we realized that this is a national agreement with the superpower and therefore it should be moved forward. So we got it approved from the cabinet and forwarded it to parliament for the necessary process for ratification. Once it reached parliament, it was up to the Speaker when to schedule it in parliament’s business. It is his prerogative and the executive can do nothing about it. But the Speaker never included it in parliament’s business. K P Oli has said from the parliament rostrum that the MCC Compact has been stalled by the Speaker. It indeed was.
We told the Speaker personally and collectively to table the Compact for ratification but he paid no heed to our request. Neither incumbent Speaker Agni Sapkota nor his predecessor Krishna Bahadur Mahara was in favor of tabling the Compact for ratification. This is the reason why we could not push the MCC when we were in power. Here is a paradox you should not miss. The ratification of the MCC Compact has been hindered by those who were in the government when it was signed.
What would Mahara and Sapkota say when asked to present the MCC Compact in parliament?
Their response was clear. They said they would not be able to present it in parliament unless they were given a go-ahead by Prachanda. Outside they are creating the narrative of national consensus on MCC but they clearly told us that they would push MCC only if Prachanda gave them a nod.
Why is UML so indifferent to Compact’s ratification at the moment?
Why should we speak about it now? The ruling party has never sought our support for MCC officially. Yes, the visiting American officials have expressed concerns during meetings with our chairman. But what is the position of the ruling coalition on this? Let them make their position clear. Then we will respond. Even so, they don’t need our support. They have a 165 majority, more than enough to ratify the Compact.
Literally nothing was achieved on BRI when your party was in power. How do you explain this?
During Chinese President XI Jinping’s visit to Nepal in October, 2019, we signed various agreements with China and both sides expressed commitment to take BRI cooperation forward. A lot of preparatory work had been accomplished but then from the beginning of 2020, pandemic struck the whole world. There has not been much progress on BRI projects because of the same reason.
We had set forth a few action plans. We were for opening, maintaining, expanding and building road infrastructure with various border points with China. Araniko Highway was our priority followed by Rasuwagadhi-Kathmandu road, Galchhi-Rasuwagadhi road, Betrawati-Syabrubesi tunnel way, Tokha-Chhahare tunnel way and so on. The Chinese side is working on a Detailed Project Report (DPR) on tunnel ways. We were also for connecting every province to the north via roads. So the Kimathanka-Dhankuta track opening was at the last stage. Korala-Palpa-Butwal track has been opened. Progress is underway in track opening for Hilsa-Surkhet road. As for the railway, which is a big component of the BRI cooperation project between Nepal and China, we will have a railway with China for sure.
There has not been much progress on BRI projects because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Chinese side is working on its DPR. Part of the reason why it is being delayed is because they are completing another railway from Chengdu to Lhasa that could come well up to Shigatse. I am told that the terrain of that railway and the one proposed to connect and pass through Nepal is the same. They seem to be waiting to see how it works. Preliminary DPR has been concluded, secondary DPR has been agreed to. The progress is slow mainly due to Covid-19 and also due to this new Chengdu-Lhasa railway.
The government led by Oli seemed like ‘pro-China’ in the beginning. Your party colleagues used to participate in CCP’s training sessions. But in the latter days it was visibly maintaining distance from China and tilting toward India.
Such perception is the result of the mindset that no government in Nepal can be enduring unless it is backed up by one or other neighbors or some external powers. This is a self-defeating mindset and we need to give it up completely. Granted that we were pro-Chinese. What proves it? The Chinese were making efforts to keep our party (NCP) united but the party got split. This particular incident disproves the premise that we were ‘pro-China.’ You need to understand that we have always stood as a ‘pro-Nepal force.’
Internationally, a false narrative was created that because we are communist we are close to China. Whereas the truth is we are completely different from the Chinese Communist Party in terms of our party organization, our political system, our governance and so on. You need to remember that China made a shift in its foreign policy as early as 1978. As such it keeps relations with all the political parties of the world. Even in Nepal, CCP has party-to-party relations and exchanges with many political parties. Their exchanges with UML need not be singled out and looked into suspiciously.
Internationally, a false narrative was created that because we are communist we are close to China. The truth is we are completely different from the Chinese Communist Party in terms of our party organization, our political system, our governance and so on.
The program our leaders participated in virtually was not a training session. It has been badly mistranslated and misreported as a training session. It was a symposium, where our party leaders simply listened to what they had to say and also possibly expressed their opinions.
Political parties organize events, they send invitations to political parties of other countries. For example, for the upcoming general convention of our party, we have invited many ruling as well as opposition parties of foreign countries from South Asia to Europe to Latin America. You cannot say we are close to so and so party simply because we have invited them and they participate in our convention.