Book Review – Diplomacy and Politics (Nepal)

 Diplomacy and Politics (translated)

(An Autobiography by Ramesh Nath Pandey, former foreign minister)

Sangri-La Books, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2015

(The book is published in Nepali language and the original title is Kutniti ra Rajniti)


Review by Dr. Anil Sigdel

In his fascinating memoir, the former foreign minister Ramesh Nath Pandey, arguably the Henry Kissinger of   Nepalese politics, delivers a sixty-year portrait of Nepalese politics and foreign policy, and shares reflections on his role as a steadfast politician and diplomat of Nepal. He takes his readers through his experiences as journalist, King’s man, diplomat, strategist, critic of New Delhi, critic of domestic politics, and minister during the years that shaped Nepal’s recent history. Newspaper editor and analyst at the tender age of 16, confidante of the three kings –Mahendra, Birendra and Gyanendra, a speech-writer who contributed his words to the speech of the likes of the Maoist Prachanda and the Nepali Congress leader G P Koirala, Ramesh Nath Pandey is an extraordinary figure in the Nepalese politics. This brief review that follows will focus on what Minister Pandey reflected in terms of conducting Nepal’s foreign relations.

Pandey’s view of world politics makes him a realist. He sees international politics as power politics in which big powers always behave heavy-handedly with small states. He values national security. And sovereignty is sacrosanct for him. He strongly criticizes powerful states’ interference into domestic jurisdiction of weaker states, and puts it as a source of instability in the world. Whether it was with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in Pakistan, Sergey Lavrov in Russia, or the UN General Assembly in New York, whenever he had a chance to talk to world leaders, he always used his argument that unless small and weak states were stable and secure, there would be no peace. He stresses that a weak state like Nepal needs a smart and steadfast foreign policy and, true to his belief, he did impress the monarchs on several occasions with his diplomatic ability.

Pandey, a king’s man with a nationalistic essence, invokes the independent status of Nepal when Asia was under the colonial yoke and the fact that Nepal had diplomatic relations with the UK (1923) and the US (Apr 1947) even before it had one with India (June 1947). He confers a “special place” to king Mahendra whom he regards as the founding architect of Nepal’s foreign policy that diversified its external relations and enabled Nepal’s international standing, established and maintained a balanced relationship with neighbors China and India as well as the world’s great powers, had them contribute to Nepal’s development and economic growth, and kept external interferences at bay.

 Nepal-India Relations

Pandey rightly concludes that, despite comprehensive political changes, the guiding principle of Nepal’s foreign policy still is what King Mahendra had propounded. Similar to his predecessors’ mistrust about India’s intentions, its displeasure over Nepal’s not aligning with India’s interest and strengthening its own independent identity is a recurrent theme of his book. He criticizes the “Indira doctrine” of exercising a blatant breach of sovereignty in the neighborhood. He holds Rajiv Gandhi, whom he describes as an inexperienced leader with youthful impulses who inherited the power from his mother, responsible for the continuity of such policies and, the disastrous India-Nepal relationship. However, when he was sent by King Mahendra to speak with the Indian PM Indira Gandhi in New Delhi regarding trade agreement issues, Mrs Gandhi showed high regards for the king and Nepal, and expressed her commitment to improve relations with Nepal. In this first foreign assignment of his at the tender age of 24, Pandeybecame very impressed by Mrs Gandhi’s “beauty, simplicity and nicety.”

Pandey’s explanation shows that the King Birendra’s leadership in Panchayat era (1972-1990) had huge concerns about Nepal’s national security vis-à-vis India. The fear emanated from the fact that the India-Nepal relations always had some foundational challenges. Within India there were/are millions of citizens of Nepali heritage residing. Before the Treaty of Sugauli of 1816 between Nepal and the East India Company which followed the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-16, the Nepalese territory was extended to Sikkim in the east and in the west up to Kumaon and Gadhwal. Many Nepalese settled in different areas of northern India during the British Raj.  Similarly, the 1950 Indo-Nepal Friendship Treaty between the independent India and the Rana Oligarchy of Nepal –Rana regime collapsed just months after the agreement – had enabled the free flow of persons both ways to live and work.

In 1987, thousands of Indian citizens of Nepalese heritage were evicted from several northeastern states of India. In response, under King Birendra’s aegis, Pandey leads a high level committee (undisclosed) to review the 1950 Treaty and make strategies and policies to safeguard Nepal’s national interests. As per Pandey’s recommendation, the government established awork permit system for non-Nepalese workers in the Kathmandu valley, which India feared would be applied nationwide. However, the Indian press, in his words “sensationalized” this measure, and subsequently the Indian Ministry of External Affairs stated that the work permit system caused problems for Indians working in Nepal, and that the measure that treated Indians on a par with other nationals was against the 1950 treaty. In Pandey’s view, Indian media freely criticizes its own government on domestic matters, but they tend to side with the New Delhi government when it comes to India’s neighbors to the extent that they distort the facts to prove neighbors (here Nepal) wrong. Pandey was also taken by surprise to find the influence some business houses in Nepal had in New Delhi.

But as the treaty of trade and transit expiration date came closer, India continued to oppose Nepal’s demand to sign two separate treaties for trade and transit. India imposed a 13-month long blockade on Nepal in 1989. Nepal’s political parties sided with India to put pressure on the king’s regime to restore the parliamentary system. The Royal regime of Panchayat ended, and the multi-party system restored.  However, Pandey claims that the reason for the embargo was neither Nepal’s purchase of anti-aircraft guns from China nor the work permits system; it was mainly Rajiv Gandhi’s ego that wanted revenge on King Birendra. According to Pandey, some major bones of contention were the fact that King Birendra did not endorse India’s move in Sri Lanka during the 3rd SAARC Summit (in 1987) in Kathmandu, and that Queen Aiswarya quite undiplomatically denied Sonia Gandhi’s wish to visit the Hindu temple of Pashupati Nath (Pandey suspects provocation in Sonia Gandhi’s asking in the first place given that she must have known that it is common practice in certain Hindu temples not to allow non-Hindus). Some time later, Rajiv Gandhi boasted that the democratic changes took place in Nepal because of some steps he had taken when he was in power. In response to the blockade, he had also said that he had to take such decisions because Nepal chose a different path.


US-Nepal Relations

Pandey’s stint as a foreign minister comes in extraordinary circumstances – he was sworn in in 2005 under King Gyanendra’s direct rule, which would collapse the following year. But Pandey had a single-minded determination to do his job. Since the US continued to pledge its support to the king to defeat the Maoist insurgents, under the condition that the king would reconcile with political parties and pave the way for democracy restoration, Pandey reached out to American friends. He succeeded in finding convergence with the American interests and also enjoyed a good chemistry with the then Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Cristina Rocca, an influential Washington persona under President Bush. He affectionately recalls that while he was explaining his views to Rocca, she was carefully listening to him holding his hands. He acknowledged that the visits by several American officials to Kathmandu in that period proved very useful. Pandey also mentions one instance with the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Donald Camp who had brought to Kathmandu a meaningful message about finding “new areas” in the bilateral relationship with the US. However, he leaves his readers with the curiosity about what those new areas were, and according to him, he himself did not ask due to the circumstances.

Pandey shows high regards for America throughout his book, despite a few reservations. He make references several times to the fact that the US was the second country, even before India, that Nepal established its diplomatic relations with. He appreciates America’s consistent support for Nepal. In fact, America was the first country to support Nepal’s campaign for Zone of Peace proposal. Similarly, he recalls the American support during the 1989-blocakde by India, especially the role played by Dr. Kissinger to help resolve the problem. Stephen Solarge’s visit to Kathmandu sent the message of American support for Nepal to India. He also shares an interesting anecdote about Mrs Kissinger’s elephant safari at the Tiger Tops, when Dr. Kissinger visited Kathmandu for a tourism summit. However, Pandey regrets that while king Mahendra had two visits (one official, one state visit), and king Birendra (state visit) one to the US, after the multiparty system was restored in 1990, the US did not give priority to Nepal. The only democratic leader who had the opportunity to visit the White House (Bush Administration, 2002) so far is Sher Bdr Deuba.

From the time of King Mahendra, Nepal expected to have, he explains, “political support, defense cooperation and economic aid” from America. But he acknowledges that Nepal had to ask for more than what it could give to America. He had denied endorsing America’s position in Vietnam War due mainly to India’s and China’s opposition to the war, and since both neighbors had good relations with the Soviet Union.  Even decades after, now he concedes that Tibet is an issue of contention between America and Nepal. He disappointed the US Ambassador J F Moriarty by denying safe passage for Tibetan refugees via Nepal as Nepal’s policy is to not allow any activities that would affect China’s national security. He also could not meet Rocca’s request to send Nepalese soldiers to Iraq. Nepal only sends soldiers to the UN Peace Keeping Missions. US Ambassador Carol Laise had once said to him that it was hard to talk to him because he always wanted more but never willing to give.  In response, Pandey said that great powers should give more and get admirations back from small states.

As King Gyanedra increasingly became isolated, failed to meet American expectations, America withdrew its support. Then Pandey’s rapports with his American friends began to crumble. Even Nicholas Burns –Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs— who had given Pandey his cell phone number just in case, stopped answering Pandey’s calls. Pandey was left with the option to navigate anti-Western waters –Russia. He was effective in reviving the moribund relations, went to Moscow and met Sergey Lavrov, put forward his views about the problems of the unipolar world, and asked for financial assistance. However, due to some sort of regulatory constraints from the Nepalese side, Pandey’s diplomatic overture to Russia ended without any concrete result. Nevertheless, Pandey reveals a less-known fact that an “all-weather friend” Germany’s weapons had already landed in Kathmandu. He was also preparing the ground for the UN Security Council temporary membership for Nepal in order to avert any pressure emanating from the UN, for which he had already secured Chinese support in his meeting with the Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing. However, King Gyanendra’s team, according to Pandey, underestimated their opponents and were insensitive to foreign friends’ concerns, which would prove the kiss of death. The king was forced to hand over the power back to the agitating parties, which soon ended the institution of monarchy declaring Nepal a new republic.

 Concluding Remarks

At the heart of Pandey’s policy is to garner support for kings’ regime and strengthen Nepal’s independent status in the world community, pursue a policy of non-alignment, diversify its dependence on India, and become a bridge between India and China. But every time Nepal tried, it fell short of achieving its foreign policy objectives. The failure owes to, according to Pandey, the behavior of political and bureaucratic elites who put self-interest over national interest. Pandey, a lone wolf politician, complains that on many occasions the palace secretariat was a jealous coterie, which exercised decisive power but lacked the necessary expertise and exposure for making good decisions, thwarted his honest effort to serve Nepal’s national interests. Similarly, political parties has sought India’s blessing for power at the cost of national interest, as a result,  Nepal has failed to maintain a consistent position on external issues; for instance, while the uncompromising Pandey had  compelled  Bhutanese leaders to implement the agreements on Bhutanese refugees, subsequent governments reverted back to the status quo ante. He does not hide his low opinion about Nepalese political leaders, especially the Nepali Congress leader G P Koirala. This appeals to most Nepalese now due to the traditional political parties’ decadence.

In the same way, he shows how the lack of hard working culture, and ineffectiveness as well as bad management is holding Nepal back. He seasons his claims with almost a movie-like anecdote.  Pandey almost unbelievably had the staffs of the Ministry of External Affairs  at the Sheetal Niwas, a neoclassical palace building from the Rana-era, clean up a beautiful  hallway in a dilapidated condition and prepare it for the meeting with Cristina Rocca from Washington in a mere 3 days. Among others, equally impressive is his tenure as minister for tourism. He was a dynamo of activity who took the industry to a new height with huge infrastructure investment agreements, new international flight destinations connections, and long-term vision and planning.

Although Pandey is mainly a realist, he suddenly expresses faith in liberal institutionalism and functionalism, contradicting the realist assumptions that the balance of power gives stability. He hopes to have one South Asia, like the EU, in which the countries cooperate under a legal supranational umbrella.  Readers would have liked to learn his views about the figures like Kirti Nidhi Bista or Yadu Nath Khanal about their role in Nepal’s foreign policy. It would also be instructive for readers to know about his own judgements in terms of Nepal’s foreign policy based on historical pride and patriotism vis-à-vis any alternative ways of conducting the policy. In any case, Ramesh Nath Pandey has managed to leave a legacy that will have an impact on Nepal’s politics for long time to come. His major regret is that he could not become an ambassador although he came so close once to become one.  But the memoir is a great read!



US President Lyndon Johnson welcoming King Mahendra in Washington, 1967

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