It did not come as a surprise to me that Yubaraj Ghimire, a senior Nepali journalist, had located me last week in Kathmandu, playing conspiratorial politics, while I was in Thimphu attending an international conference (‘Ex-foreign secy Saran meets Prachanda’, IE, July 14). Had some trustworthy individuals not actually seen me in flesh and blood participating in the conference, including a respected Nepali delegate, my supposed shenanigans in Kathmandu would have been cast in stone. As it is, when friends in Nepal and India asked me if I was on a secret mission to Nepal, my denials were met with the not unreasonable response that of course I could not own up because it was all so hush-hush. I understand that the story has now spread in Nepal and, not for the first time, facts are a casualty.
As ambassador to Nepal from 2002 to 2004, I was struck by how a section of the Kathmandu political and civil society elite and media was convinced that the Indian government spent most of its waking hours figuring out how to subvert Nepal when the really big challenge was how to get enough attention for Nepal in New Delhi’s political and bureaucratic establishment. If there is one industry which is always flourishing in Nepal it is its fabled rumour mill, with its handlers vying with each other to produce the most imaginative and even bizarre stories about Indian activities in Nepal.
Kathmandu is almost entirely disconnected with the rest of the country in respect to attitudes towards India. I always encountered easy friendship and affection for India in the mountain valleys as in the Terai plains. A warm welcome would be extended to Indian representatives by Gorkha pensioners from the Indian army, from families of countless Nepali citizens earning their livelihood in every corner of India and from ordinary people who valued their kinship ties with their brethren across the border. A paradox, yes, but real nevertheless.
Perhaps one ought not to be surprised that projecting India as a threat is often the most convenient way of diverting attention from the more difficult and complex economic and social challenges the country confronts. But in Nepal, such contrived hostility is deeply corrosive and denies its people the benefits that could flow from looking at India as an opportunity, not as a threat. What a contrast one finds in Bhutan, which has judiciously leveraged India’s compelling energy needs to develop its hydro-power sector, with income from the sale of power to India already making it one of the richest countries of our subcontinent. Nepal has a much larger hydro-power potential. The transmission lines required to evacuate power to the main consuming centres in India would be much shorter than from Bhutan. And yet we have the strange spectacle of India selling power to Nepal instead — the modern equivalent of carrying coal to Newcastle.
I am convinced that Nepal has the potential to emerge as by far the richest country in our region. Which developing country has the good fortune to be located at the crossroads of the two largest and fastest growing economies in Asia and the world, India and China? Which country has free access to India’s huge and expanding market? Instead of bemoaning that it is “India-locked”, why not consider Nepal to be “India-open”, as it undoubtedly is? Nepal’s market is not limited to its 22 million people and to its geographical frontiers. It has at its disposal a market of 22 million plus 1.2 billion consumers next door and a vast hinterland to use.
Shyam Saran is a former foreign secretary and has served as ambassador to Nepal. He is currently Chairman, RIS and Senior Fellow, CPR
Yubaraj Ghimire replies: Given Mr Saran’s denial, I trust him and apologise for having put out the story based on information provided by people in influential positions in the Maoist party.