Unrealistic nature of equidistance: Maoist foreign policy

Maoist leader C P Gajurel sounded too simplistic when he announced Nepal’s foreign policy of equidistance between India and China. The question is, when was it not? Over the last 45 years, we have been hearing the same aphorism with different adjectives and adverbs since King Mahendra manoeuvred to end the “special” relations with India.

But equidistance is a misnomer in Nepal’s foreign policy because it was never there. King Mahendra and King Birendra were closer to China than India. King Gyanendra tried the same tactic but it was too grotesque. Nepali Congress PMs Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, Girija Prasad Koirala and Sher Bahadur Deuba were closer to India than China. Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa is known for his India leanings as against PM Marich Man Singh, who stood on the opposite side. PMs Kirtinidhi Bista and Tanka Prasad Acharya had a pro-Chinese bias. I know none of our rulers who have ever maintained a strict equidistance in our relations with the two great neighbours. King Mahendra tried to create a make-believe of equal treatment by attending one’s ceremony in the morning and enjoying the other’s in the evening.

When Maoist leader Gajurel came out with the lacklustre announcement of equidistance I had difficulty in understanding his objective. It could not be for home consumption as we are not interested in knowing what foreign policy the Maoists would follow, if they formed their government solely on their own. We are interested in what they are going to do on the domestic front. Even if it were for our consumption, what difference would it make in changing our opinion? Nobody is going to change his or her attitude towards the Maoists for adopting the policy of equidistance between India and China.

It is, therefore, obvious that the announcement was intended for international consumption on the eve of Maoist entry into the interim legislature and interim government. But that too is meaningless because the existing foreign policy of Nepal is considered, at least outwardly, to be based on equidistance between the two giant neighbours, although the reality is different. Even if the Maoists get the foreign portfolio, they cannot change the basic character of the foreign policy of a coalition government that they are going to be a part of. So whom Gajurel’s statement seeks to address is beyond comprehension. To say the least, the timing of the announcement was wrong and the content was pointless.

The concept of equidistance is only rhetoric having no relevance to reality. Foreign policy should be based on and guided by reality, not by rhetoric. It is symptomatic of our psychological complex that we could not remain independent and neutral towards either of the next-door powers. The challenge, therefore, is to be psychologically and materially clear what we want for our country and develop our relations with the neighbours and the world at large accordingly. We are never clear in our goals as far as the foreign policy is concerned.

Take, for example, the open border with India. We proposed to regulate the border with registration of people of both countries crossing the border at a time when India was not willing to do so. But over the years the context changed in the wake of Maoist violence and India tried to regulate the border with security vigilance, identity verification and registration of the travellers across the border. If we really wanted to regulate the border in earnest we should have supported and cooperated with the Indian authorities in getting it enforced and formalised. But, on the contrary, we expressed our displeasure at it. So the question arises, what do we exactly want? An open border or a regulated border? Once we are clear about it, we can lobby and negotiate with India. In fact, we had both the opportunities: either to have it or not to have it. We are still not clear on this matter.

On the other hand, the border question is clear as far as China is concerned. The northern border is regulated as any other international border. If we try to apply the border relations with China to border relations with India in the name of equidistance we have to regulate the southern border immediately. If we apply the southern principle to border relations with the north, we will have to follow the open-border policy with China too. How will the Gajurel doctrine of equidistance be carried out on this issue? In fact, my question is as much irrelevant as his statement is on this question.

The Gajurel declaration is not in conformity with that of his boss Prachanda who has profusely complimented India for helping to work out the 12-point agreement. Prachanda has publicly admitted the foreign role in the political development of Nepal but advocated pragmatically turning even the interference from a negative into a positive factor. Is it not in the same spirit that Comrade Mao told King Mahendra in the sixties during his heyday to “mend Nepal’s fences with India”?

Shrestha is a freelance journalist