E ver since Pradeep Kumar Gyawali took charge as Nepal’s Foreign Minister in March 2018, the country has been in overdrive to stabilise its relations with the two Asian giants, India and China, and a variety of actors on the global stage. Gyawali, a self-taught communist and an underground party worker from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, has been working on the peculiar issues facing landlocked countries. He was entrusted with the spadework ahead of Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli’s visit to China. Gyawali’s focus on resetting relations with India hinges on India’s treatment of Nepal as an equal sovereign nation—something that the Indian establishment is reluctant to accept. In a wide-ranging interview to Frontline , Gyawali discusses the challenges facing the new government and the path ahead. Excerpts.
The new government inspires hope because after a prolonged period of instability, Nepal will finally have stability in governance because of the constitutional provision which limits the scope for moving a no-confidence motion. In over two decades, no government has lasted beyond eight or nine months. In practice, has this provision led to a sense of complacency because the government cannot be dislodged? The provision will also apply to any future government.
The major problem that Nepali people were facing so far was instability. This was the most detrimental element which disturbed policy coherence and continuation and made our state structure so weak that it led to unnecessary and unwanted foreign intervention and a feeling of chaos. State power was less effective and this was a byproduct of the instability. We focussed on having a stable government so that it can fulfil its tenure of five years. And if it does not work properly, then the people have every right to change it. So making those objectives the topmost priority, we set out some provisions which we think might contribute to stability.
This, and the merger of the two communist parties, give you brute strength in Parliament. You have 174 members in Parliament out of a total of 275. Does this majority embolden you to throw normal democratic norms out of the window?
I would like to say that the communist movement here is unique in nature and is on a specific path of development. And the most important thing that I would like to say is that all the universally accepted democratic values of pluralism and human rights have been incorporated into the core component of the Nepalese communist movement. So that is the typical nature of the communist movement and government here. Some people are trying to create a fear psychosis that with a two-thirds majority [in Parliament], the Left forces will gradually control society and move in an undemocratic direction. That is totally wrong. It is a well-accepted fact that we are the front runners of the democratic movement. So this background gives many of the answers. Yes, there are some perceptions [that the brute majority will be used to steamroller all opposition] because it is unprecedented here in South Asia where right-wing politics is increasingly finding appeal among people. Here, the Left movement is popular, strong and leading the country. I would like to clarify that we will follow those traditions which are in favour of the nation and the people, we will strongly follow the path of democracy, and we will strongly follow the path of open society and pluralism. I have to add that socio-economic transformation is our major agenda. So we would like to translate this mandate into one that makes tangible changes in people’s lives. Our efforts on this front might create some disappointment to those forces which are not in favour of these changes.
How does the communist movement in Nepal reconcile with the concepts of nationalism and patriotism, given the fact that the Communist Party of Nepal [CPN] was founded in Kolkata?
The fact is that the trajectory of the movement in countries that were colonised, or the countries whose sovereignty was challenged in the past, is entirely different. While protectionism in the United States or the United Kingdom represented the interest of the multinationals, the capitalists and a handful of the elite there, here in Nepal the nationalist feeling represents the aspirations of the broader mass of people, who want to be independent in the real sense. Independence is not a word or a terminology. We talk about its real implications. We have every right to choose our path of development, to choose our system of governance and to choose our foreign policy independently.
The communist movement is here because we represent all major trends of the Nepalese people’s movement. These comprise first the patriotic and nationalistic trend, which grew during the anti-British struggle; second, those movements which were reformist and humanist in nature prior to the establishment of political parties here; third, the democratic trends and the struggle for democracy. The Nepalese communist movement reflects all these three trends. That is why it is so strong and popular. Yes, Marx said that we are internationalists, but prior to that every working class in its particular society has struggled against colonising and imperialist forces.
Are the two communist parties willing to come together for a unified approach on the question of the Madhesis and the tribal people as an underclass rather than treating this as an issue of ethnicity or caste?
The communist movement in Nepal started its journey not entirely based on class struggle but guided by a political ideology. Gradually, it came to represent various groups of the working class. But a country such as Nepal has two different aspects of exploitation. One is class discrimination and the other is various forms of social discrimination such as gender discrimination, the discrimination of Dalits and the cultural exploitation of minority groups. We are striving for a balance between the class struggle and the movements that are targeted towards social justice. So on the one hand, we represent the working class and, on the other, those sections of society that are discriminated against. The communists are the real representatives of women who want an equal place in society, the Dalits who want a dignified life, the Madhesi Muslims and those residing in the remote areas who have no access to state power. We represent them as well. But what differentiates us from those advocates of ethnic-regional struggles is that they undermine the class struggle. They retain the class attitude. At the end of the day, they represent the elite or creamy layer of that particular group. We represent the real aspirations of the people.
How does the dichotomy in views between the two communist parties in the coalition play out in governance? You first had an agreement for a merger, and then it took about eight months to materialise. Now there have been talks about some leaders wanting positions of power in the new structure.
Actually, during the 1990s, the two strands of the communist movement were on the surface. The period from 1996 to 2006-07 was when the two trends were sharply divided, negating each other and vying to become the largest political party in the country. But in Nepal, armed struggle, the violent path, was not successful. And then the Maoists realised that if they did not change their policies and practices, if they did not change their course, then there would be serious damage. So, later on, they changed their course, accepting multiparty democracy and agreeing to dismantle the army that they had [created]. That was the turning point which created a solid ground for the cooperation between the two parties [CPN-Unified Marxist Leninist and CPN-Maoist Centre].
In the past 10 years, there was another round of competition. There were some dilemmas amongst the parties. Comrade Prachanda [Pushpa Kamal Dahal] once wondered, “Am I Prime Minister or am I the rival leader?” [He was Prime Minister at that time.] That was the mindset. At the back of their minds, they were seeking to take over power but the first decision, to sack the Army Chief, was not a wise one. Later on they realised that the time had come to totally discard those feelings that one fine morning they could capture state power.
It was quite obvious, given that the UML has strong roots, that it would emerge as the single largest party. But that was not enough for the UML. We wanted stability. We spent more than seven decades in the democratic movement and now the time had come to take the responsibility of making our society prosperous and providing the benefits of political change to the people. Political slogans were not sufficient. We should also collaborate with progressive forces that wanted to change. That was the realisation on our part. On the Maoists’ part, they tried their best to stand alone as the single largest party but the coalition with the Nepali Congress Party cost them a lot. So they realised that the time had come to collaborate with the UML.
In the initial days, there was some scepticism whether this alliance would go through with the merger [of the two parties] or not. After all, we were from two different schools, two different backgrounds and had different mindsets. But later on, the joint election campaign was the catalyst and was instrumental in bridging the gaps and emotions as well. That created a solid ground for the unification. With our different backgrounds, maybe new problems will emerge. But we are fully confident that we can manage them. The party is united not only ideologically and organisationally but also in the style of working.
I have to now ask about the integrity policy which your government has brought in, because this is constantly being debated and has been flagged by several international NGOs [INGOs] and diplomatic missions. What is the rationale behind this policy and why does it attract so much international attention?
Those institutions that are working in a transparent manner, in compliance with the priorities of the Nepal government, do not need to be suspicious or scared. First of all, we want those resources which are being spent by INGOs to be focussed on our priority areas. Many of the INGOs spend the money, which is the money of the taxpayers in their country, on non-substantive issues such as training, workshops, excursions and so-called leadership grooming. Not in a productive manner.
You want them to focus resources on capital works such as infrastructure building.
Yes. Physical infrastructure, job creation and those areas where we can substantively improve people’s lives. So first of all, the aim of the policy is to channel the resources of the INGOs to the priority areas. Two, those budgetary expenditures should come under the umbrella of the national budget system. No arbitrary spending, and no spending in non-priority areas in an unaccountable manner. So the government should know that the particular NGO is spending its allocation on one particular project. If the government has this information, then it can use its resources for other sectors that need focus. This will ensure no replications or repetitions.
Third, some institutions have suspect [sic] activities as well. Whether they represent the spirit of that particular institution, we do not know. But some people are interested in forcible conversion [from one religion to another] by offering people money, some make unnecessary interferences in sociocultural issues, sometimes creating or fuelling tensions in society in the name of culture or religion. So we have to make a clear boundary line, a lakshman rekha , so that they cannot go beyond that and they keep to the broader framework of rules and regulations. Those are our priorities. No need to be sceptical or suspicious or scared of this policy. It is basically to properly coordinate the resources which need to be aimed at the betterment of the Nepali people. The government does not want to squeeze the space of civil society. But if there are no regulations, then there could be chaos.
On your June 3 meeting with Nepali editors, you said that from now onwards, internal politics would never become an agenda of bilateral discussions with other countries. Is this post-blockade politics?
Yes, although this should have been our consistent and coherent policy all along. In the past, in various cases, our internal politics became the bilateral agenda [between Nepal and India]. We were a bit embarrassed when our Prime Minister visited another country and said that our Constitution would be amended in this way or that way; when he expressed his commitment saying that this time I was defeated but next time I promise I would fulfil my commitment. This is absurd.
So not only in discussions with India and China but elsewhere too, we want to draw a clear boundary line stating that internal matters will never be the issues in a bilateral discussion. Second, we have an independent foreign policy. Sometimes we have seen in the past in Nepal that some Prime Ministers pledged to go in compliance with your foreign policy in the United Nations and in other multilateral fora. That is totally unacceptable because Nepal is an independent country. It has its own priorities and concerns. India has its own regional and global aspirations. Similarly China, too, has aspirations. We cannot be a part of these ambitions. We just want to be benefited by the rapid economic growth of both our neighbours. We want to create an environment in which our products can easily go to their markets, we can take advantage from their innovations and technologies. That is our principled position.
On relations with India, a few things have been there forever: the open border, Nepalis in the Indian Army, and the Reserve Bank of India guaranteeing the Nepali rupee. Given the special relationship that Nepal and India enjoy now, should these be relooked at?
Sometimes the word “special” can have various connotations. So we shall refrain from using that word. But it is a unique one. You are absolutely right about the open border, about the cultural proximities, similar cuisines, and so on. Even the movies we like are similar. So many things. Second, the Eminent Persons Group [EPG] is working hard to totally evaluate our relations. At a lecture at Banaras Hindu University, probably in 2011, I said that the time had come to redefine our relationship in the changed context of the 21st century. So the EPG is trying its best to review all these things. The open border will not be closed but will need to be regulated. Otherwise there may be misuse of the border and this can pose a security threat. So some regulations will be needed. The 1950 treaty [Indo-Nepal Treaty on Peace and Friendship] must be reviewed and replaced by a newer one that reflects the present-day situation. The Rana [Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana] signed the treaty which had some very unfair provisions. We have to review it and make a new treaty based on mutual trust and friendship.
Finally, the India-China question. Every single country in South Asia is grappling with this issue, including Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Bangladesh. How are you dealing with it? You have a rather large wish list, which was presented to the Chinese in the Prime Minister’s recent trip.
We want a broader partnership [with China]. We would prefer soft loans to grants because grants sometimes bring unnecessary conditions as well. But what we do want to reiterate is that Nepal’s ultimate desire is to benefit from both sides. And we have time and again told our neighbours not to doubt or be suspicious about Nepal’s relationship with other countries. When we talk about having a good relationship with China, it is not aimed against India. India and China share a large common boundary and have a huge economic and investment relationship. Then what is the reason for the suspicion [against Nepal]? It is our principled position that we will never allow our soil to be used against a neighbouring country and we will try our best to take care of the genuine concerns of both countries.