21-27 October 2016 #830

Tripartite tête-à-tête

If Nepal doesn't set its politics right it will continue to be treated as a footnote to history

Diwakar Chettri

There has been detailed deconstruction of the chance meeting between the leaders of India, China and Nepal at the BRICS-BIMSTEC Summit in Goa last week. As far as we can make, out the get-together was indeed unscripted, but it turned out to be serendipitous.

It is not an easy job for the organisers of summits to choreograph the comings and goings of heads of government in alphabetical sequence with barely seconds of separation between each other. One leader spends an extra few minutes chatting with another and the whole meticulous timeline goes haywire. That is what seems to have happened when Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Chinese President Xi Jiping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi ran into each other at the lobby of the conference centre in Goa.

That encounter would have gone unnoticed had the scion of Prime Minister Dahal and his personal secretary, Prakash, not been there to capture the scene in his mobile camera. Even so, no one would have known had Prakash not gone on to post the picture on his Facebook wall with a press statement of his own inferring that his Dad had extremely good body language with President Xi and that the three had agreed to work together.

For the Indian foreign policy establishment, ‘multilateral’ is a bad word. India does everything bilaterally — especially with neighbours. Which must be why the Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson issued an immediate clarification that the meeting was just a coincidence, and not a trilateral summit in any way.

Whatever it was, and however one looks at Prakash Dahal’s over-reach in bypassing Nepal’s Foreign Ministry to issue off-the-cuff pronouncements, the image of the three leaders sitting together was highly symbolic at many levels. If the tripartite tête-à-tête was not planned, it should have been. It may have been a coincidence, but it was a good coincidence.

Despite its aversion to multilateral approaches, and however much the organisers had plausible deniability that the meeting was pre-planned, it is India that benefited the most from the leak. The message to Nepal (and especially Prime Minsiter Dahal) couldn’t have been clearer: don’t try to play us off against each other because India and China are on the same page vis-à-vis Nepal.

That is also the advice that the Chinese leadership has been giving various Nepali netas from all four main parties when they have visited Beijing in the past: "Sort it out with New Delhi, and don't rock the boat". Which must be why although the picture breached protocol for the very protocol-conscious Chinese, they did not publicly express any serious displeasure about it.

For Dahal, the photograph was the perfect opportunity to clear his image back home in Nepal where he is seen to have sold out to India. Op-eds and editorial cartoons in the Nepali media have lampooned him as kowtowing to the Delhi Durbar to get himself back as PM, even if it was just for nine months. Having his son leak the photograph through social media was a master stroke because it suddenly showed Comrade Prachanda as a regional statesman rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty and ostensibly having the blessings of both.

The Maoist-Nepali Congress coalition is also blamed within Nepal for having botched the planned visit by President Xi which should have taken place just about now. Prime Minister K P Oli had worked hard to set up the visit, but just as he fell victim to geopolitics the visit was also cancelled. Nepal is not important enough for China to jeopardise its trade relations with India over. Which is why the Dahal father and son had to assure folks at home that all was well on the northern front.

In the final analysis, all this navel gazing in Nepal serves no purpose. As long as we cannot put our own house in order, set our politics right and steer the country towards economic growth, we will continue to be treated as a footnote to history by our big neighbours.

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