Deuba’s Foreign Policy Amid Fluidity: Continuity or Change?
Deuba’s Foreign Policy is being watched by its neighbours as it will decide the fate of its international relations across borders. On the Nepali side, new Prime Minister Deuba has an opportunity to reach out to India and establish an honest line of communication to discuss all outstanding issues and find common grounds. Will his fifth-inning into the corridors of Singh Durbar be different or similar to his predecessors?
Sher Bahadur Deuba assumed premiership of Nepal on July 18, 2021, by obtaining the vote of confidence in the reinstated Parliament. This all happened after the Oli Government’s dramatic exit from the Executive Seat as the Supreme Court of Nepal had issued a mandamus writ to form a new government. In this change of guard in Kathmandu, the diplomatic corps remained abreast of the fall of the Communist Government. They were voted with a two-thirds majority in the first election that was held after the promulgation of the Constitution of 2015. The Supreme Court verdicts on the twice-dissolved Parliament of Nepal also witnessed contempt of the court from the dissatisfied groups.
Deuba had earlier served as Nepal’s Prime Minister on four occasions but he never completed his tenure. An elected representative in the erstwhile regime of constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, Deuba was ousted twice from the office, being called incompetent by the then-monarch. Deuba had earlier paid three visits to India as Nepalese Prime minister: in 1996, 2004, and 2005. Deuba represents a remote village in the Dadeldhura district of far-western Nepal and started his political career as a student leader. His foreign policy and international relations have been enunciated but a Minister of Foreign Affairs has not been appointed yet. What would be his tack in this field of expertise?
A newly chosen Prime Minister of Nepal, Deuba made a few public statements in the Nepalese Parliament on the day of the vote of confidence required to run the government for 18 months. His basic thrusts were not in the parlance of foreign policy and international relations. They were brief and short.
Deuba proclaims that his government’s priority is to strengthen bilateral relations with India and China. His view is to maintain cordial relations with both countries. In global space, Deuba stated to give utmost priority to the nation and primacy to national interests. He underlines fraternal relations with the USA, EU, Japan, and other development partners. Deuba reiterated the maxim of what the former British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston said in his speech in the House of Commons on 1 March 1848 “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” although a follow-up to this policy is left out until political consensus is built. There are intractable questions in the domain of foreign affairs. Will his fifth-inning into the corridors of Singh Durbar be different or similar to his predecessors?
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Reference is made to the Oli Government’s diction that spearheaded a Foreign Policy Document that has lettered to assemble the annals of policy postures of MoFA/GoN (Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Govt. of Nepal) in 2020. Is Deuba competent enough to bring any rejuvenation to foreign policy or diplomatic exercises? In fact, how will Nepal traverse the field of international relations under his leadership? Kathmandu seeks accountability and responsibility in foreign affairs wherein stakeholders are diverse, plural, and multiple. A country that has been known as poor, destitute, and one of the least developed landlocked countries, Nepal is unleashing thunderbolts like never before in its political history. From a Nepali perspective, changes are good as long as national interests comprising national security, national welfare, and national integrity are not endangered. We can expect that the fall of the regime may not compromise Nepal’s sovereignty vested in the people. That means democracy and liberalism go hand in hand to maintain democratic peace.
We have to evaluate a snapshot of Oli’s foreign policy that was seen as tilting towards China and ensuring Chinese aspirations in South Asia. This can be refuted as well. Oli, being a communist, said that he professed democracy in Nepal throughout his political career. He tried his level best to manage foreign affairs in challenging circumstances of natural disasters, pandemic onset, and domestic political crises. Oli tried to navigate the country though it is fragile in administrative affairs and has corruption-prone ministerial portfolios. By the way, Oli warned that his eviction from the Chief Executive would see repercussions in the days ahead and a prolonging future of an unhealthy political milieu. On the other hand, in the aftermath of the promulgation of the Constitution of Nepal 2015, Deuba remained aloof from so-called India’s displeasure of not accommodating aspirations of people of Indian origin belonging to the plains of Nepal.
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India’s policy, then, was to include broad-based support and stakeholders to inclusive democracy adopted by Nepal. It is said Deuba did not comment on India’s intervention and support to dissidents. India’s Nepal policy is to keep and promote good ties and bonds. Nepal’s India policy, however, has been all-weather roughshod. Both governments are active in normalizing initiatives in abnormal situations, such as this. India cannot ensure its foolproof national interests in Nepal. It seems to be insatiable. When border disputes were followed by map-making, cartographic anxiety fell on the part of both. Not only Buddha was born in Nepal, but also Oli noted Lord Ram and Devi Sita were born in Nepal, causing uncommon commentary on ancient India and ancient Nepal. Even yoga, Oli said, originated in Nepal and the practice of meditation born in the Himalayas. This could irk the BJP stalwarts and Hindu nationalists of India.
Premier Deuba is left with the legacy of such comments. China’s influence on the United Communist Party was similar to India’s political and diplomatic exercises in the domestic politics of Nepal before 2015. But, Nepal cannot always blame political instability on foreign countries. Nepalese politicians have to be wary and start resolving problems, commence economic and financial development. Nepal’s rankings in global indicators are dismal. Public policy is to be implemented and tangible changes are still to be seen. Efforts to introspect the failures and Nepali priorities with subsequent attempts to address them and succeed are desirable. Otherwise, it is too much to see the same politicking on the stage as in the past and the present. A French statement of “the more it changes, the more it is the same” is slightly amended when change may go worse with time.
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A common minimum policy and program have been spelt out in the habit of an intricate political equation of this Deuba government with every permutation and combination in principled interests. There are fault lines, bottom lines and redlines; whatever is apparent is seen as real. Or Plato’s allegory of the cave is enigmatic for the layperson. It means shifting reality from the disillusion, and a quest for enlightenment in the dark times, in the age of anger. Recalling the unique and millennia-old people-to-people linkages that underpin the special friendship between India and Nepal, Modi and Deuba, on the latter’s assumption of the PM’s Office on July 19, agreed to work together to enhance bilateral cooperation in all areas. They discussed, in particular, ways to strengthen cooperation and coordination in the context of the ongoing effort against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hyphenating and de-hyphenating India-Nepal dynamics amid the Chinese factor, Nepal had established diplomatic relations with India and China in the 1950s. In the past six months, many political pundits, analysts, and foreign policy enthusiasts, both in India and Nepal, have been puzzled by emerging political dynamics in Nepal. India has been publicly saying that political developments in Nepal are its ‘internal matters’, but there was a strong perception that India was throwing its full weight behind Prime Minister KP Oli through various bargaining interactions. This may be just speculation without evidence.
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Bilateral relations, though based on the five pillar policy, are in contestations. So Deuba, the head of Nepali Congress, a moderate and often friendly political party to India’s strategic goals, sees an opportunity for India to reset its Nepal policy. However, this cannot change the realpolitik and calculus of asymmetrical size and perception. India may not support any individual but it checks to ensure that its national interests are secure in Kathmandu’s policy and decision-making circle. There are two core issues – one is India’s broad-based clout in the political society of Nepal to witness promises and pitfalls of liberal democracy and second, to see political actors maintain good fraternal relations without anxiety with the North or the Western countries.
Nepal has to understand the foreign policy apparatus of India, its limits and its potentials in the Southern Asian sphere of influence. A foreign policy conundrum is intriguing although taking pluralist democracy in India and Nepal for granted. So one has to figure out these determinants even to maximize its surety to a conducive environment rather than inimical overtures. About Oli, India’s diplomatic space has a policy neither of appeasement nor of total support. India’s Oli policy is said to be ambiguous and unexpressed taciturn. In the future, India might follow non-interventionist comments and disinterest in politics; alluring not from its side but from the political genomes of Nepal. Oli is seen as a hardliner against India and there is rhetoric. India watches alertly but it cannot do more to control or pursue Nepal being a sovereign country. India is mistrustful of Nepal, and therein political disorder. India is certainly unhappy with Nepal’s Communist Government hobnobbing with the PRC. India’s Nepal policy is a legacy of the past and administrative heritage because it knows well the ethos and creed of Nepal and Nepalese.
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Nepal is the centre of great power rivalry having proximity to two powerful neighbours – India and China. This is the geopolitical, geo-economic, and geo-cultural importance of Nepal in the world. A Himalayan enclave undergoing political transition has elusive political stability that has not unleashed its diplomacy to manoeuvre in foreign policy starting first from its Himalayan turf. On the Nepali side, new Prime Minister Deuba has an opportunity to reach out to India and establish an honest line of communication to discuss all outstanding issues and find common grounds. In the past, Deuba’s government has agreed with India for the early conclusion of the Agreement for Mutual Legal Assistance and updating the Extradition Treaty. However, more recently, the alliance with Prachanda, the head of the Maoist party with a soft corner for China, and the leadership competition in Nepali Congress, with some members of his party feeding suspicions about him, might have contributed to the Deuba-India trust deficit. India’s Nepal policy is unchanging and constant as long as its policy interests remain immutable irrespective of the helmsman in the government in Kathmandu. Nepal seeks democracy to function and politics in control. But when it gets regressive, it seeks support from India.
Sher Bahadur Deuba happens to introduce jabs and other pandemic measures that were put in place by the Oli government. Deuba, a staunch democrat, aims to end corruption and create conditions for free and fair elections due next year following the latest opaque political instability. Deuba had struggled when he led governments before. His premiership as in the past is beset with troubles and turmoil. He speaks little and incomprehensibly but what counts is a political breakthrough that addresses the nation’s ills, despite some deviations in policy implementation it may undergo. Nepal’s issues are old and piling from three decades. Things are not similar as they used to be. Nepalese, today, are politically conscious and vox populi is pessimistic; critical comments are widespread. The challenge of development and human capital is strenuous given the financial strength and economic status.
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A foreign policy has gotten a shape from the erstwhile government of Oli that bears testimony of diplomatic exercises of Nepal and its policy heritage. Those who speak little but act more are appreciated as compared to those who talk a lot but do little while in government. A political promise is to be neither ignored nor remain in apathy. Once it is uttered, it is to be executed and should be neither forgotten nor undone. The political challenge lies in demonstrating. Deuba’s short statements themselves cannot define foreign policy doctrine. Such statements are terse, but important in substance. Complexities – individual and state-wise – are common. Political enthusiasm and active engagement can achieve what Nepal yearned for ages. Nepal is an old state reborn in the 21st-century world. Thus, an action-centric leap must be undertaken, and in this matter, a delay would be costing Nepalese more in a miasma of conflict and discontentment.
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About the author
Rajeev Kunwar is a political scientist based in Kathmandu. He is currently a doctoral student of political science at Tribhuvan University, Kirtipur, Nepal.