Are critiques against foreign meddling mere stuffs of imagination? Is it that we do not see what others see or others do not see what we see?
In his January 12 interview with Republica, Nepal’s foreign policy expert Nischalnath Pandey strongly countered foreign interference argument in Nepali politics. “It is not right to say that foreign actors are involved in every little issue of day to day governance,” he said. How can you dismiss foreign meddling, especially from India, when it has become an open secret? I and Biswas Baral persisted. “Political leaders politicize Nepal-India relation because they have no development agenda for elections,” he replied.
He drove his point home with an example of slow pace of reconstruction work. “Who is responsible for this? Do you blame the external actors?” He asked. “Our leaders deflect their weakness on to external actors. This has become a national disease.”
The government could not declare public holiday on Prithvi Jayanti, he went on, though there was a pressure from all sides. “Do you blame external actors for this as well?” Political leaders conveniently blame external actors to hide their incompetence, he insisted.
Pandey’s view resonates well among many. Nepali political actors fail on even small undertakings. They fail to issue orders to improve governance and bring the corrupt to the book, which they could do with the stroke of a pen. With the stroke of a pen, a sitting minister can issue an order to check market irregularities, make vital medicines available in health posts and hospitals, get school textbooks printed and delivered to schools in remote areas and deliver seeds and fertilizers to farmers, all on time. With one resolve and commitment, you can fight with darkness. Think of Kulman Ghising who made a difference in people’s lives from the moment he took office as CEO of Nepal Electricity Authority. Our ministers fail to get the most basic things right, most of the times. No wonder, Nepali politicians and political parties feature as the most corrupt entities in almost every annual report of Transparency International.
It’s hard to draw a fine line between foreign meddling and domestic failure and say which is what because foreign actors do not admit to it and Nepali actors often lie. Take Maoist leaders. They were among the most vociferous critics of Indian meddling until a year ago.
In the wake of constitution promulgation in 2015, they told us how Delhi establishment had used all powers in its arsenal to influence constitution making and how they fought back with unity. Today Maoist leaders would have us believe all that was the result of their own inability to put our house in order.
Current Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal had enforced a week-long general strike in 2009 to unseat Madhav Kumar Nepal’s government, “Delhi’s puppet.” Don’t be surprised, if Dahal’s government is toppled for failing to get constitution amendment bill passed and if he blames India for this yet again.
But there are also examples which are outcomes of both domestic incompetence and foreign meddling. Recall the appointment of Lok Man Singh Karki in the post of CIAA chief in 2013. Political parties themselves had elevated him to this coveted post, despite strong objection from media, civil society and public intellectuals. It is now well known fact that our top leaders were forced to take this unpopular decision mainly due to strong pressure from Indian intelligence operatives.
To what extent do foreigners interfere in our internal affairs? Are critiques against foreign meddling mere stuffs of imagination? Is it that we do not see what others see or others do not see what we see? “Foreign meddling is beyond imagination of general public. It is so subtle, so indirect but also so intense and so forceful,” said Gopal Khanal, the author of Bhurajniti (“Geopolitics”) who also served as a foreign affairs adviser for K P Oli. “They exert pressure even in matters related to appointment of officials in top posts of the government and public institutions.”
“Sometimes foreign ambassadors would ask the prime minister to take unconstitutional decision,” Khanal shared his experience of working with Oli. “Mr Oli had to convince them about unconstitutionality of their demands by having them read English translation of our constitution.”
We have a precedent of a prime minister’s press advisor being forced to resign for writing an article reminding India and other foreign actors not to interfere in Nepal’s constitution making process. Prateek Pradhan, who was press advisor to Prime Minister Sushil Koirala at that time, wrote in this space on September 16,2015 that foreign elements “that are trying to instigate Nepalis to take up arms against each other are not doing so in the interest of Nepal.” “Various interest groups in India and elsewhere,” should respect “the voice of Nepali people,” he warned.
Pradhan faced the consequences. “I believe S Jaishankar raised this issue with PM. But I had not done anything wrong. I had nothing to fear,” he told me in a recent meeting at his Thapathali office. Pradhan argues that Nepali actors themselves are responsible for inviting foreign meddling. “There is this complex among our political leaders and state officials that they are inferior to their foreign counterparts. So they tend to take even a small concern of foreigners as an order. We should take the concern of foreigners just as a concern,” Pradhan explained. “The person who seeks appointment in top posts of public offices seeks blessings from foreigners. And the person who appoints him makes it an excuse to appoint him. This vicious cycle continues.” What is even more worrying is, he said, “prime minister’s kitchen cabinet does not discuss a single issue of national interest.”
So here is a conundrum: How can you point fingers at foreigners when your own leaders fail on multiple fronts? But how can you take every influence peddling by foreign forces as a coincidence? How can we take Indian economic blockade and Delhi’s open directive on how Nepal should revise its provincial boundaries as non-interference?
Foreign meddling does not come in a visible naked form. Often it looks like coming out of good feeling for us. Failing to differentiate the best wishes from the bad intentions can sometimes lead to unimagined consequences.
In an informal conversation with me and my colleague Biswas Baral a couple of months back, an eminent Nepali politician told us the tale of one last MP of Kingdom of Sikkim.
We had never thought we would lose the country, the Sikkimese MP told him. We all thought we were working for the greater good of the country. Jolt of awakening came only when we lost the country. This Sikkimese MP, Nepali leader told us, has not been able to come to terms with guilt of what he and his likes did in 1975. Now living like an ascetic, he gifted Nepali leader a copy of Bhagavad Gita, the last resort of solace for the greatly crestfallen and guilt-ridden MP. He has been acting out the trauma of guilt in the fashion of fallen hero of S T Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Sometimes our foreign friends may be working for our good. Some of them have helped us with the best intentions a number of times. But they may also be pushing the agenda that may look like beneficial to us but which in reality is not so. Countries take foreign meddling really seriously. When Barack Obama, in December last year, expelled 35 Russian diplomats suspected of influencing US election, he was sending a big message to Russia.
We need to be able to see which of the mess in Nepali politics is the result of our leaders’ incompetence and which the fallout of foreign meddling. Failing to do so only gives advantage to both parties. Foreigners will tell us the mess is the doing of our own leaders.
The domestic actors will try to fool us by saying they failed because of foreigners’ intervention. We should not mix foreign meddling with domestic failure and vice versa. In doing so, we may hold the parties responsible for the things they have never done or blame the foreign actors for the offence they have never committed. We could lose well-meaning friends as well.
Worse, conspiracies may have been hatched against our interest and yet we could take them as result of our own doing. We may be trying to chase the ants by ignoring the elephants in the room. We may be mistaking ants for elephants and elephants for ants.