Now that the leaders of the awkwardly acronymed BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) are in the process of departing from Kathmandu after their fourth Summit, it might be the time for a post-mortem.
The greatest achievement for Nepal from the Summit, as far as ordinary citizens of some parts of the capital are concerned, is that at least some of the muddy roads got paved, and the ugly dumping sites got fenced off.
By the weekend, Kathmandu will be limping back to the old normal: traffic jams, decrepit roads, crumbling sidewalks, a grubby jungle of brick and concrete. And people will once more go about their daily lives, resigned to the fact that through feudalism, absolute monarchy, dictatorship or democracy, nothing will really change in this country.
No matter how many potholes were hurriedly patched, colourful gates erected, or flags allowed to hang limply above the motorcades, there was no hiding from visitors the rot within. The Thai leader reportedly refused to join the retreat in Gokarna despite the PMO’s prodding because of the poor condition of the road.
What a sorry state Nepal has become with its decomposing democracy, eroding rule of law, impunity, cheap populism, a pandemic of corruption and dilapidated infrastructure. All the more glaring because we have a powerful ruling party with full mandate to fix it all if it wanted to.
It might be best to call a moratorium on any future summits or high-level international conferences in Kathmandu until we get our own house in order by cleaning up the city and the politics. No matter how good our hospitality or how far-reaching BIMSTEC resolutions, the state of Nepal will influence the way the Nepali state is treated by our neighbours and the international community.
BIMSTEC was set up 20 years ago as an alternative to SAARC, which got ensnared in India-Pakistan acrimony.
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The new sub-regional body tried to ‘look east’ with a focus on trade and connectivity by dropping Pakistan and adding Thailand and Burma, and picking up Bhutan and Nepal along the way. Getting South Asia’s plodding elephants to hobnob with Southeast Asia’s sprinting tigers, however, has not been as easy as first envisaged. Even so, linking the northeastern quadrant of South Asia through connectivity, energy grids and trade could be beneficial for all members.
Geopolitics, and the deepening polarisation between China and the US-India axis could put a spanner in the works. Beijing’s Belt Road Initiative competes with its emphasis on connectivity. BIMSTEC was India’s way of sidelining Pakistan, and the military exercises of its member states in Pune next week is meaningful.
There are other sub-regional initiatives besides the Dhaka-headquartered BIMSTEC. One of them is BCIM that evolved out of the Kunming Initiative and brings China’s Yunnan in an economic sphere with Bangladesh, India and Burma.
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When politics got in the way, countries in the sub-region tried to find a concrete do-able alternative and set up the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal) motor vehicle agreement. But even for something as simple as this, it looks like India’s suspicions about vehicles from Bangladesh and Nepal having unhindered passage through its territory, and Bhutan’s reservations about being swamped by Indian trucks has blocked progress.
Despite all the effort being put into cross-border regionalism, however, it is in bilateral economic links that there has been most progress. Even on something as logical as a China-Nepal-India trans-Himalayan railroad, the agreements so far are separately between India and Nepal, and Nepal and China.
President Xi Jiping has said he wants a quadrilateral deal with India, Nepal and Bangladesh on connectivity, but New Delhi is not ready to play ball. The energy grid agreed to in Kathmandu will be a test to see if BIMSTEC is really different from SAARC.
Despite Nepal’s poor image, being a member of any regional or sub-regional grouping, however moribund, is an advantage. There is strength in numbers where there are two hefty neighbours right next door.
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