Last month, Nepal's top Maoist leader made two widely reported trips to China and India in quick succession. The trips by Pushpa Kumar Dahal - better known by his nom de guerre Prachanda - sought to whip up support for his idea of a 'trilateral cooperation' between Nepal, India, and China, an approach that the former prime minister has determined is central for Nepal's development and independence.
In many ways, the Indian leg of the trip was an attempt to wipe clean the bitterness that has characterised his party's relations with India. After being the first PM of Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal, Prachanda chose to visit China, which is quite contrary to the normal tradition of any previous head of government. Subsequently, the incident of sacking and then reinstating the former Chief of Army Staff, Rookmangud Katwal, soured relations with India, at its height. However, since then, Prachanda has realised that Nepal's geostrategic position is such that it requires the cooperation of both its northern as well as southern neighbour to spur its economic progress, and to maintain its sovereignty. The trilateral cooperation is a means to achieve that end.
Domestic politics might have sparked off this change in the party's overtures towards the two Asian giants. The new policy could cement Prachanda's credentials as a leader committed to the peace process and multiparty democracy. This would gain him new allies, both domestic and foreign, aiding the long-pending process of framing Nepal's first republican constitution. Prachanda might also be banking on his foreign policy to burnish his image as a statesman who can engage on his terms with Nepal’s powerful neighbours.
This new approach sets Prachanda apart from the 'dogmatic and sectarian' views of his more extremist colleagues who have split the Maoist party. Prachanda's smart new avatar has him going easy on ideology and hawking a realist approach that keeps Nepal's development at the top of the agenda.
Some of that new spirit was visible in his Delhi speech, where he criticised what he called narrow nationalism, preferring to bat for a ‘progressive nationalism’ that would accommodate Indian and Chinese concerns, while ensuring Nepal's economic development. This is a marked shift from Prachanda's earlier political agenda for national sovereignty and civil supremacy, which often took an anti-Indian tone.
Towards New Economic Diplomacy
Trilateral cooperation could be the new form of economic diplomacy that Nepal pursues to leverage its geographical location. Breaking out of its land-locked state, Nepal could be a land link between Asia's two fastest growing economies. For Nepal, trilateralism promises new trade routes and markets, greater investment in hydropower, and a boom in tourism from the development of Lumbini and other pilgrimage sites. It could also provide a much-needed boost to Nepal's weak industrial and agricultural sectors. Both in Sichuan and New Delhi, where he floated this idea, Prachanda acknowledged that it was the long-term vision of Nepalese statecraft and would hardly materialise overnight.
Policy analysts are more sceptical. Convincing Nepal’s neighbours to tune in is easier said than done. Trilateralism requires a new order of diplomatic collaborations between India and China. Lingering suspicions of each others' activity in Nepal leaves little space for them to warm up to the idea that Nepal is equally 'land open' for both of them.
Nepal must find a way to convince its neighbours that it does not favour one at the cost of the other. Talks to replicate with China an agreement with India that protects the southern nation's investments in Nepal might be a promising start.
Public attitude in Nepal towards trilateralism is yet to match Prachanda’s optimistic calculations. Far from seeing opportunity from Nepal's geographical proximity to the economic powerhouses, many Nepalese blame both India and China for the country’s underdevelopment. Several of them see their nation as caught between the rivalry of its larger neighbours, and locked into being dominated by them.
Prachanda's visits may well bridge the gulf of mistrust between Nepal and its neighbours. The new economic diplomacy is certainly a positive. Prachanda has signalled that Nepal can uphold its security only if it prospers economically, and that its development depends on good relations with both neighbours. Trilateralism is still an idea in the making; which will perhaps see fruition even years from now. However, Nepal has shown imagination in leapfrogging from bilateral to trilateral arrangements, and in engaging stakeholders in India and China. Consensus between the two giants on Nepal can only thin down the dominance their politics has upon the Nepalese.