By Amit Gautam, Kathmandu
14 May 2020
What a state manages to achieve in a bilateral or multilateral negotiation depends very much on its institutional memory. Institutional memory here refers to what a negotiating state presents as statistical and subjective evidence during a negotiation process.
Scatterred and conflicting remarks the prime minister and his deputies have been making on the subject of Lipulekh suggest Nepal does not have sufficient information and evidence to sit at the negotiation table with India.
Recently, following Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s inauguration of the Link Road to Kailash Mansarovar, Nepalese foreign minister Pradip Gyawali claimed that the government had no idea about India constructing the road in the Nepalese side of the border.
This statement from the minister, someone responsible for drafting Nepal’s foreign policy, explains how unreliable Nepal’s institutional memory and sources of information are. Meanwhile, Kantipur Dainik, one of Nepal’s largest selling national dailies,had published a news report on 17 February which had made the matter glaringly clear through its prominent headline: “India Continues to Build Road on the Nepalese Side of the Mahakali River”.
The news report had announced, in no uncertain terms, that the southern neighbour had been constructing a road on the disputed land.
Here, it is noteworthy that when the revelation was made by the Kantipur report, we had the same foreign minister as we have now.
Are Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and Foreign Minister Pradip Gyawali saying that they and their advisers missed a media headline bearing on the most important topic of contemporary Nepal, its sovereignty and national pride?
Following a wide reportage on the inauguration of the Link Road by Rajnath Singh, protests flared up in Nepal. Angry netizens blamed Nepal government for its failure to fix long-standing border issues with India forcing it to issue a statement that decried India’s unilateral opening of the Link Road connecting Dharchula in Uttarakhand with Lipulekh, an area Nepal has been claiming as its own by virtue of the Sugauli Treaty of 1816.
The failure of security and intelligence agencies is even more discomforting.
Hence, it would be fair to understand this lack of information as an extreme level of insensitivity and ignorance of both the Nepalese government and its security and intelligence agencies.
The road was not built in a month, or, even a year. It was back in 2005 that the Indian Cabinet Committee on Security had approved the project to construct the Ghatiabgarh-Lipulekh road. And, the road was under construction since 2008. If the plan was endorsed in 2005, how is it that the Embassy of Nepal in New Delhi had no idea about the project? Is protecting Nepal’s national interest not the sole mandate of the Nepalese mission?
Security agencies in the districts along the newly-built road too do not appear to have an idea about the construction of the road.
Was the Nepalese government indeed unaware of the construction or did it choose to turn a blind eye to the project? It is an unsettling question for Nepalese people today. Deputy Prime Minister Ishwor Pokharel visited the Kalapani region for an aerial inspection on the same day as Kantipur Dainik published the news about India building road in the eastern side of the Mahakali River.
However, at no point did Mr Pokharel mention about the construction of the road in the long-disputed area. At no point, in any formal or informal talks, did he mention about what he saw during his “aerial inspection” of the hinterland.
Had the government taken this news report seriously and probed into the matter and contacted the Indian officials, what happened last week could have been prevented.
The government’s indifference towards information and issues raised by the media is likely to take it further away from people’s expectations. On the one hand, the government’s sources of information are inefficient and the information management system is weak while on the other, it grows more intolerant of the media by the day.
The Oli government’s aversion to media is not new. He and his cabinet ministers do it very often. On 17 April 2019, the then Minister of Communication and Information Gokul Banskota, speaking in a book releasing ceremony had banged on media for wasting their energy in criticising the government when their actual focus should have been on promoting the accomplishment of the government.
Similarly, in his International Labour Day message on 1 May, the Prime Minister accused media for promoting instability. In several other instances too he accused the Nepalese media for not having the ‘heart’ to highlight the achievements of his government.
The discontent of government ministers including that of PM Oli himself involves accusation that the Nepalese media belittles and overlooks the government’s achievements or unnecessarily criticises the government for no significant reasons.
The government’s frequent reprehension towards media reports clearly indicates that it demands media to renounce its independent journalistic stance and simply pronounce the political agendas of the ruling party. This attitude of the government suggests its failure to appreciate that media reports are mainly to inform people as impartially as possible and not become the mouthpiece of the government or any political party in power.
In a fair world, the government should in fact be thankful to media and media persons for helping them identify their weaknesses so that they can learn and adapt and move ahead. That would have been a winner.
What the Government of Nepal needs to realise is, in a state with such a poor institutional memory, the fourth estate can be an effective source of information.
The Oli government should therefore work with the mainstream media, not engage in blame-game against it.
Amit Gautam works as a researcher with Social Science Baha, a Kathmandu-based research organisation.