BY M. R. JOSSE
NEW YORK, NY: A trifecta of catastrophes, shocks and conundrums constitutes the meat of this week’s column. Monday’s shocking air disaster at Tribhuvan International Airport – the biggest there in Nepal’s aviation history – in which 49 humans lost their lives and 22 suffered grievous injuries, naturally fed a sense of tragedy.
Though the cause(s) of the disaster has/have yet to be ascertained, what constituted immediate talking points, including that it struck an airline (US-Bangla) which few, including self, had even heard about, was that it happened in the middle of the day, in calm weather, and timed when the ill-fated flight from Dhaka to Kathmandu was virtually over.
What was another striking, hideous feature of the awful mishap was that it seems to have provided quite a few with the opportunity to post horrendous photographs of the accident on social media, a symptom of how insensitive our society still is in such matters – as also mirrored the transparent failure of the concerned authorities to prevent mass access by eager-beaver on-lookers to the site of the calamity.
Here in the world capital of New York City, I could not help noting how very scanty coverage it received in the US media – despite the fact that the aircraft was a Boeing. By way of contrast, a helicopter that crashed into the East River in this city, hours later, with a death toll of five was – naturally – all over the place.
Moving on, I was hardly bowled over that the Indian media zeroed in on the Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s recent 20-hour visit to Kathmandu, making him the very first foreign dignity to pay an official visit after K.P. Sharma Oli’s installation as prime minister.
Browsing through such slanted, shallow commentary, one could be mistaken into believing that Nepal and Pakistan had never, ever, been close politically; that high level visits, in both directions, had never taken place in the past; or that the two countries never shared a pretty large area of strategic convergence, be it vis-à-vis their respective perspective towards New Delhi or that with respect to Beijing.
No one in India, it seemed, bothered to recall that the Nepal-China-Pakistan triangular relationship was alive and well not only during King Mahendra’s reign but during that of King Birendra’s, whose zone of peace proposal, for example, received immediate endorsement by China and Pakistan!
For those who think that Nepal’s foreign policy pale should be limited to India, or that all our foreign policy initiatives must be okayed by New Delhi, may have genuinely believed that Oli sought to ‘sock it’ to India by acquiescing to the Pakistan premier’s friendly gesture of seeking to come over to Kathmandu, to congratulate Oli personally and discuss issues of mutual concern between the two countries, with a view to make up for lost time.
Others, more imaginative, may have wondered whether sometime later the spectacle of Nepali fuel carriers being prevented from entering Nepali territory at the Nepal-India – due to some ‘software’ problem – was not meant as a subtle warning that India still retained the power to twist Nepal’s arms, as India had infamously done in 2015!
Against that sobering backdrop, it is certainly worth mulling over whether the timing of a meeting between Nepali and Chinese officials to consider issuing ‘one day passes’ to facilitate border trade between Nepal and China at the Kerung border checkpost was coincidental or exquisitely timed.
Whatever the case may be, I find it quite amusing that reports have begun to appear in the Indian media about the possibility of Indian Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Nepal as also that by Oli in the other direction. Is this meant to stymie a Oli visit to China or an equally high-level visit to Nepal by a Chinese dignitary? We should know the answer soon.
In the meantime, it is quite edifying to read reports in the Times of India claiming that India is going the extra mile in ‘accommodating’ China’s sensitivities vis-à-vis the Dalai Lama, or that, at a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit meeting in China in summer, earth-shaking developments on the Sino-Indian relations front will come to pass.
Anyone with a nodding familiarity of how these visits and summits go know very well that bilateral meetings are held at the ‘sidelines’ precisely because they are of ‘marginal’ significance as compared to the import of the main event.
My gut feeling – and it is no more than that at this time – is that India has had serious second thoughts about attempting to challenge China, head-on, as she seemed determined to do, several months ago. Perhaps the awareness has finally dawned of the rapidly widening disparity in raw power between India and China and the futility of depending on America to provide a shoulder for India to fire cannons at China.
As far as the latter is concerned, I wish to briefly mention a report in the New York-published South Asian Times weekly (March 3-9) with this headline: Trump chides Modi on trade. Also illuminating was this excerpt: President Trump “imitated Modi by folding his hands and talking in a soft and serious tone. He is a beautiful man. And he said ‘I just want to inform you that we have reduced from 75% (tax on American imports), but we have further reduced it to 50%’…What do I say? Am I supposed to be impressed?”
Trump made those remarks while addressing state governors at the White House.
Of course, the biggie of the week was Trump’s shock announcement that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sought direct talks and that he agreed to such a meeting by May.
What needs to be stated is that Trump’s critics were not only completely nonplussed but were mealy-mouthed in even acknowledging the obvious significance of this strategically important turn of events.
The final word on the subject, naturally, remains to be said.