Wed, 12 Sep 2001

Nepal needs practical approaches to giant neighbor

By Parmanand

CALCUTTA: The new Deuba government has also to prove its mettle in foreign affairs. As a landlocked, small and underdeveloped country, Nepal's international interactions are restricted to India and China. Of course, over the years, Nepal has also acquired a place in the world community.

Nepal will be hosting the 11th summit of the heads of state or government of the seven members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation -- if and when it is held. The 11th summit of the SAARC heads of state or government was slated to be held in Kathmandu in December 1999. India stressed its postponement owing to political changes in Pakistan in October that year -- which saw Gen. Pervez Musharraf taking over as the country's chief executive.

The new Deuba government has also to focus its attention on the problem of the Bhutanese refugees living in seven camps in eastern Nepal. Identification of the refugees is being held by the joint verification team, containing Nepali and Bhutanese officials.

The president of the Bhutanese Refugee Repatriation Committee and secretaries of the seven refugee camps in Jhapa and Morang jointly appealed on July 18 for additional teams to speedily complete the verification process. It is hoped that the meeting of the foreign ministers of the two kingdoms in New York will help solve the problem. Otherwise, the two Himalayan states seem to be moving closer -- forgetting the setbacks of in the past.

Nepal's ties with India, though, is bound to remain of utmost importance. Landlocked Nepal is surrounded by India in the east, west and south and, as such, the mountain kingdom is also, at times, alluded to as an India-locked state. KV Rajan, during his tenure as India's ambassador to Nepal till June 2000, would refer to Nepal as an "India-linked" state -- showing the sophistication of Indian diplomacy and the core state's accommodative spirit.

This, though, does not imply that everything is hunky-dory in Indo-Nepal ties. The secretary-level bilateral meetings on trade between the two countries held in August in Kathmandu ended without any concrete result. Indeed, the two states are so close on social, religious, cultural and even economic fronts that attempts at institutionalization of bilateral ties often give rise to complexities.

It needs to be stressed that the two countries have been, for some time, holding talks at various levels in Kathmandu and New Delhi to ensure the smooth renewal of the trade treaty which is due to expire on Dec. 2this year. The two states signed a renewable trade treaty in New Delhi on Dec. 6 1991 for a period of five years. In fact, the non-renewal of the trade and transit treaties in 1989 by India had created almost a cold war situation between India and Nepal.

Ironically, this contributed to the establishment of competitive multiparty democracy in Nepal in 1990. On Dec. 3 1996, the commerce secretaries of India and Nepal, Tejendra Khanna and Mohan Dev Pant, exchanged letters in Kathmandu, renewing the Indo-Nepal Treaty of Trade and the Agreement on Cooperation for the Control of Unauthorized Trade, with certain amendments.

It is well known that Nepal's economy depends substantially on that of India. There is also little doubt that India has always tried to be accommodative on the trade front with Nepal. In any case, India cannot afford to damage its economy by default. Nepal will do well not to make the on-going talks on renewal of the trade treaty a prestige or political issue. The scene in 1989 was different from the present one. Maoists are waiting for an opportunity to take on democratic forces in Nepal and India simultaneously.

The two South Asian states will have to be transparent and accommodative on the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship. Playing to the gallery should not continue indefinitely. India should not have any problem about its security -- if various security clauses are removed or if the treaty is abrogated altogether.

In any case, the treaty does not have any provision for amendment. Any new treaty of peace and friendship would have a great deal of difficulty in getting endorsed by parliament. Both countries should, therefore, adopt a practical approach. It is against this backdrop that Deuba will visit India.

Traditionally, every Nepalese Prime Minister, soon after settling down in office, makes India his first foreign destination. In any case, Deuba will be meeting Vajpayee on the sidelines of the Saarc summit in Kathmandu in December. Much before that, the Indian external affairs minister Jaswant Singh will visit Nepal. These visits, it should be hoped, would help solve various problems.

On Feb. 12 1996, the Mahakali Treaty was initially signed by Deuba and Narasimha Rao in New Delhi. Under it, the 6,400 megawatt Pancheshwar Hydel Power Project is to be set up jointly by Nepal and India at the cost of Rs 20,000 crores on an equal sharing basis.

Despite India's best intentions, the treaty is yet to become a reality. The two governments would do well to sort out various problems and ensure that a very useful channel of economic cooperation is fully utilized. Nepal is aware of the mutually beneficial ties between another South Asian mountain kingdom, Bhutan, and India owing to bilateral cooperation in power generation.

Because of the geo-strategic location of China -- in particular because of the Tibetan Autonomous Region and its incorporation in the PRC in 1950 -- Nepal has to be constantly watchful about its ties with the former. The two Asian states established diplomatic ties in 1956.

Ties with China, it needs to be stressed, were not established during the reign of King Tribhuvan (1911-55), who was indebted to India for his emancipation from the clutches of the Ranas. King Mahendra (1955-72) utilized diplomatic ties with the PRC to his advantage both internally and externally: internally, by getting support from various Communist groups to his undemocratic Panchayat polity and, externally, by keeping India on diplomatic tenterhooks.

Deuba will be visiting -- traditionally, the Nepali Prime Minister visits the PRC immediately after his visit to India -- China soon. He had paid a six-day official visit to the PRC in 1996. Fortunately, the two states do not have any substantial problem between them. China, though, has been complaining to Nepal about the lowering of the level of bilateral trade. Nepal has not been oblivious of this.

Deuba's skill in foreign affairs will thus be put to test in a variety of ways. He has to face a sensitive domestic press and opposition parties. Of course, they give Deuba more concessions in comparison to Koirala. There is no point in being over- optimistic, but it can certainly be hoped that Deuba would give a good account of himself.