Pakistani PM’s Nepal Visit
Dr. Narad Bharadwaj
The visit of Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to Nepal in the wake of the formation of a new left coalition government has generated considerable public curiosity with some analysts trying to read its message between the lines. Billed as a Pakistani PM’s initiative to invigorate SAARC and to felicitate Prime Minister KP Oli for his appointment to the high office of the prime minister, this visit is also being viewed as a part of larger political dynamics of Asia.
It is a rare diplomatic practice for a prime minister of a country visiting the capital of another country merely to extend felicitation to the newly elected prime minister. But it is not out of the rulebook of high diplomacy. Countries can have different level of mutual trust and cordiality on the basis of the depth of interaction and the spectrum of cooperation. Nepal and Pakistan are good neighbours who do not have any sticking points between them. These two countries have a history of uninterrupted friendship and cooperation ever since the diplomatic relation was established between these two countries on 20 March 1960.
They have shared commonality of interest and have maintained common views at major international fora. Be it in the non-alignment movement or the present day SAARC, Nepal and Pakistan have respected sovereignty and territorial integrity of each other and have never allowed internal issues to get over their friendly relation. In this background, the visit of the Pakistani Prime Minister may well be interpreted as a special gesture of closeness towards Nepal. Apart from setting a rare diplomatic precedence, the visit has also given the Pakistani PM the privilege of being the first guest of honour of the newly elected leftist government of Nepal. However, the most outstanding contribution of his visit is, perhaps, the rekindling of hope on the revival of the SAARC process which has lost its vitality and is in a state of torpor for reason of conflict of interest between Pakistan and India.
The 19th SAARC Summit, which was cancelled in 2016 because of India’s refusal to attend the summit accusing Pakistan of having a hand in a terrorist attack on a military post at Uri, is long due. Pakistan has been repeatedly expressing its readiness to hold the stalled summit meeting eve since it was cancelled but has not materialised yet. In this context, the Pakistani Prime Minister might have considered it appropriate to start regional consultation from Nepal to revitalise the SAARC. However, his visit has been made controversial by the critical Indian media which has depicted it as a show of solidarity among the signatories on BRI rather than being a genuine initiative of Pakistan to set the ball of the SAARC process rolling again.
Pakistani Prime Minister Abbasi did try to lend sense to his visit sharing, in length, as to how Pakistan was benefiting by expanding its economic base through its association with BRI and how the 1,500-kilometre stretch of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) was changing into a bubbling market bringing about an unprecedented opportunity for connectivity and growth.
During his meeting with Nepali leaders, Pakistani PM Abbasi advised Nepal unswervingly to create condition for reaping maximum benefit from the Belt and Road Initiative by ramping up cross-Himalayan connectivity and increasing investment on infrastructure. This is, in fact, the policy which the government of Nepal has been pursuing to end the situation of dependence on India in matters of external trade and transit. Nepal pursues independent foreign policy with regard to its relation with friendly countries. It is only because of strained relation between Pakistan and India that the visit of Prime Minister Abbasi to Nepal has been exposed to critical commentaries.
But those who are aware of the unfolding events during the past weeks hardly fail to note that this visit had taken place at the initiative of the Pakistani government. Nepal had only fulfilled the protocol of welcoming a dignitary of a neighbouring country who wished to make a trip all the way from Islamabad to Kathmandu to felicitate Prime Minister Oli and hold consultation on SAARC affairs. It is to be noted that the same privilege was accorded to Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj when she expressed her desire to visit Nepal earlier to felicitate Prime Minister Oli and hold talks on bilateral issues.
For whatever reason this visit might have taken place, it provided an important opportunity for Nepal to learn from Pakistan’s experience. After Pakistan started infrastructural development under the umbrella project of CPEC, it has scored substantial success in several areas of socio-economic advancement. There is a palpable improvement in enter-ethnic tolerance, cultivation of multi-cultural working environment, mitigating energy crisis and putting together massive development infrastructures in the field of roads, railways, ports and airports. For Pakistan this visit also provided a window to showcase its success stories. The Pakistani leader also used this opportunity to share wisdom toward building an alternative vision of development which is worth grasping for finding ways to free Nepal from the entrapment of backwardness and poverty.
As an independent and sovereign country, Nepal has every right to tap all the potential avenues that can lead to meaningful collaboration among the neighbouring countries in its quest for stability and better life. Some Indian media outlets have explained Abbasi’s visit to Nepal as the former’s attempt to wean away Nepal from India’s orbit. But it is only pulling a long bow to lend a sinister twist to innocuous diplomatic initiative of a neighbouring country inspired by clean intention of renewing friendship and cultivate good will.
India and Pakistan are rival powers in South Asia but Nepal has maintained strict neutrality in matters of their differences. We only wish that these two neighbours settled their differences on negotiating table and embark on the path of collective prosperity. Nepal is aware of its geo-strategic vulnerability and refrains from playing one power against the other. We are willing to come out the trap of poverty by effectively mobilising available natural resources, creating critical infrastructures in the field of road and railway transportation, manufacturing, hydroelectricity generation, expansion of transmission grids and diversification of connectivity.
Sometimes, smaller countries get caught in an awkward situation because of the tendency of powerful ones to attach exaggerated geo-strategic meaning to even some visibly unremarkable phenomena. In this sense, the trip of the Pakistani Prime Minister to Nepal should be understood only through the perspective of building a common view towards responding to unfolding socio-economic paradigms in South and Central Asia.