Nepal can have its own Raisina Dialogue. Here is how

The idea of the Sagarmatha Sambaad was too good and it would be a huge mistake not to give it a try. It was supposed to be a multi-stakeholders initiative.

Simone Galimberti

  • Read Time 6 min.

Over the years, the Raisina Dialogue has become the top forum in South Asia to discuss international relations or, as nowadays it is often referred to, geopolitics and its linkages with the broader society, including its impacts on the economy and trade.

The 9th edition of the event, a joint collaboration between the Observer Research Foundation, one of the most prominent foreign policy think tanks in India and the Ministry of External Affairs was held a few weeks ago, from 21-23 February.

Raisina grew in terms of importance and relevance year after year, following the ascent of India among the members of the international community.

The stronger the Indian economy and the more visible its foreign policy became, the more the Raisina Dialogue became prominent.

This is not only a byproduct of Prime Minister Modi’s dynamism on the global stage or because of the effective work of India’s maverick Foreign Affairs Minister, Dr. S. Jaishankar.

It is simply because India does count internationally and it is not only, despite its internal challenges with unemployment and poverty, a major economy but also a major geopolitical power.

As result, the Raisina Dialogue has become one of the most important global forums in the Asia Pacific, still far from matching the significance of the mostly defense focused Shangri-La Dialogue organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies but certainly getting closer to its Chinese equivalent, the Boao Forum for Asia that will be convened at the end of this month.

Yet I am wondering if its growth and increasing importance would overshadow the potential of organizing other events of the same nature in South Asia.

In short, does the almost irresistible rise of the Raisina Dialogue imply that there is no space for other geopolitics focused forums in the region?

Could, for example, Nepal also be ambitious enough to hold a high-level foreign policy summit or would the inherent weaknesses of the country, especially its political instability, its unambitious foreign policy, preclude such possibility?

Just before the pandemic hit the planet, the Government of Nepal was working to host the first ever Sagarmatha Sambad or Dialogue.

It was supposed to be held in April 2020 and it was ambitious and visionary enough, a real novelty for the country’s foreign policy.

Unfortunately, for some strange and unknown reasons, no one picked up this idea again and this is unfortunate.

In a recent interview for the Annapurna Express, former top diplomat Madhu Raman Acharya revamped the idea of holding the Sagarmatha Sambad.

Apart from this bold and failed attempt, so far the only person that has been visionary enough to try to organize something similar has been the well-known management consultant and author, Sujeev Shakya, the founder of the Nepal Economic Forum.

In the past the Nepal Economic Forum went pretty close to organize something very bold and visionary, the Himalayan Consensus Summit and more recently, it launched the Himalayan Future Forum

The HFF’s mission is “to encourage multi-faceted dialogues on the Himalayas by bringing together stakeholders from different countries and sectors within the region” and it is what is needed at the moment.

Few weeks ago, in February, its first conclave was held in Kathmandu with a small but interesting line-up of international speakers, including the academician Mahendra P. Lama and Shivshankar Menon, author and former diplomat, both prominent figures from India.

Yet, while we should give high credit to and offer some kudos to Sujeev Shakya and his team, I believe that Nepal should aspire more.

It is true, the traditional political shenanigans and gimmicks, by now a traditional feature of Nepal’s image in the region, are not conducive to any major, inspiring thinking.

But at the same time, civil society organizations could work together to come up with a big international foreign policy and international economy summit where private business houses could chip in.

My previous column for Nepal Live Today focused on a different, wider idea for the upcoming Investment Summit.

But I do get that this initiative is really about pitching potential global investors.

My suggestion in the piece was to broaden its focus a little bit to better link the quest for more investments with the big battle of fighting poverty that as we recently saw with the latest release of Nepal Living Standards Survey is still quite worrying.

Basically, keep the frame of equity, inclusion and empowerment, all cornerstones of the Agenda 2030 in the picture while looking for investments.

Probably business as usual will prevail with a narrow-minded focus on big investments, especially the “gold mine” of hydropower development, as highly profitable as destructive of local communities.

But here are some ideas on how to lead the organization of a Nepali’s answer to Raisina Dialogue.

The best option would see the Ministry of Foreign Affairs collaborate with national think tanks, including the Nepal Economic Forum, considering its credibility and past experiences to lead a big conclave.

A network of key stakeholders led, for example by the state affiliated Institute of Foreign Affairs and Policy Research Institute, also an autonomous but government entity, could take the lead and coordinate.

The first objective would be to sketch out a master plan of a possible big event. What would be the focus, what would be the sub-themes to be promoted and discussed?

Considering the essence of interdisciplinary approaches, a cornerstone of modern and effective policy making, the focus on foreign policy should not outshine other key aspects that are now essential pillars of regional integration and geopolitics.

A key area to be analyzed could be revamping the SAARC, one of the most frustrating aspects of regional dynamics in South Asia.

The recently held SAARC Programming Committee could offer a tiny hope that the process of regional integration could move ahead, even if at abysmal slow speed.

National and regional think tanks could provide impetus with ideas and suggestions, finding novel ways to unstick the whole SAARC, especially with a more pragmatic approach that does not depend on the whims of the national heads of government.

Then of course there are the economy and trade aspects that could be analyzed, including the aspects of sub-regional cooperations and then linkages between South Asia and other neighboring regions, especially the Gulf and South East Asia.

Representatives of China could also be invited, especially from the myriad of foreign policy institutes and centers that are now active.

A healthy debate, even amid strategic differences, could emerge, with experts from India and other SAARC nations debating with representatives not only from China but also from the Gulf and ASEAN.

I am aware that this proposition is very ambitious but serious work through partnerships and collaborations could make it work.

Let’s not discount that the field of think tanks is growing in the country.

I talked about the Nepal Economic Forum but there are many others.

The Institute for Integrated Development Studies, Nepal Policy Institute, the Centre for South Asian Studies, The Asian Institute of Diplomacy and International Affairs, just to mention a few, could all take a leading role under the coordination of the Institute of Foreign Affairs and Policy Research Institute.

The Asia Foundation, International IDEA, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Nepal and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems could be involved as well. 

Business associations like the Federation of Nepalese Chamber of Commerce & Industries and Nepal Chamber of Commerce together with Frost & Sullivan Nepal could also have an important role.

Even Daayitwa, the most prominent leadership focused organization in the country, should join as well because the essential of effective policy making is leadership.

National newspapers should also have a voice and a role too. The same should be said for an historical journalism platform like Himal Southasian.

The recently organized World Social Forum, hosted for the first time in Nepal in February, potentially offers an interesting method of organizing big events.

While there was a central organizing team led by the NGOs Federation of Nepal, it was highly decentralized with organizations being able to run their own events within the framework of the World Social Forum.

We do not need to have that extremely loose governance that it’s uniquely tailored for this gigantic event that was the Forum.

For example, sponsors and partners could be taking the lead in certain areas of policy making, based on their expertise.

For instance, the United Nations could sponsor some less geopolitical (read political) segments where the focus would be on poverty eradication and the Agenda 2030.

Maybe bringing together all these national players is going to be too daunting a task.

At the same time, what is certain is that a country like Nepal, despite its current challenges, should not refrain from being ambitious and visible on the global scene.

Staging a big international dialogue is something that the country could do, in one way or another.

The minimum is to start a collective brainstorming and envision it by the end 2026.

The idea of the Sagarmatha Sambaad was too good and it would be a huge mistake not to give it a try. It was supposed to be a multi-stakeholders initiative.

Why then not really empower key stakeholders of this nation and give it go?

Simone Galimberti is the co-founder of the Good Leadership and of ENGAGE. Views expressed are personal.