BGA Brainstorm: Unleashing Nepal’s Potential in 2021 and Beyond

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Unleashing Nepal’s Potential in 2021 and Beyond

Sujeev Shakya signing copies of Unleashing the Vajra. (Photo: Sujeev Shakya)

After a challenging 2020 that included Covid-19, Nepal is among the Indo-Pacific countries looking to better realize some of the opportunities in front of it in 2021. BGA Senior Advisor Sujeev Shakya has continued to chart some of the pathways to unleash Nepal’s full potential in some of his ongoing work as well as writing and speaking engagements, building off of insights he had provided in his book “Unleashing the Vajra”. Below is a brief interview with Sujeev about Nepal’s current state and its future prospects.

1) One of the themes in some of your writing, including the title of your latest book “Unleashing the Vajra” is a need to move beyond the overemphasis by some on the challenges Nepal has and seizing some of the opportunities for the country in spite of the issues that remain. Can you elaborate on the origin of the term “Vajra” and its significance in your view?

The “Vajra’ has different meaning for different folks who follow Buddhism or Hinduism. For many it is the weapon that combines the indestructible force of the diamond and the unlimited force of the thunderbolt. For me it has been the symbol of potential as well as the indestructible power of positivity. It is symbol of the potential to unleash the dreams of many Nepalis who are land-linked to the two large economies of China and India.

2) As you’ve recently noted for a piece at the East Asia Forum, 2020 was a rocky year for Nepal for a range of reasons which derailed some initial high hopes for the country, including with the onset of Covid-19. Beyond some of the immediate effects, how would you say that observers ought to think about how it might affect Nepal’s positioning and the country’s story more generally?

Nepalis have great resilience as we can see the way we emerged from the decade-long insurgency and the big Gorkha Earthquake of April 2015. We will overcome the challenges posed by the Covid-19 as there is sense of moving on. We already see people talking about Covid-19 in past tense. International tourism will be affected for some time and take a bit of a hit. That said, Nepal’s tourism and hospitality industry, which is dependent on locals, has already started to show signs of recovering.

3) Despite the pandemic, you’ve also been continuing to do select travel and some virtual interactions internationally, and you’ve also written about the interactions between Nepal and the world, including people-to-people connections and the sense of “global Nepali.” What are some things that have struck you about cross-border connections amid Covid-19?

It is very interesting to note that flights from and to Nepal have been full, indicating Nepalis remain connected to the world (5 million out of the total population of around 30 million people work or live outside Nepal). We see the movement of Nepalis who are continuing to search greener pastures for jobs and opportunities. While the pandemic has impacted travel to many countries, people also find ways to use charter flights and other means to connect. Already, I’m seeing that Nepalis are traveling through Dubai to Bangkok, and I expect this will continue and even expedite as the world opens up more in the coming months.

4) Domestically, looking ahead to the rest of the year, Nepal has some key upcoming developments, including the potential for elections previously scheduled. What are some other major signposts you think will be important for businesses to watch looking ahead to the rest of 2021 and into 2022?

Nepal’s prime minister, who was leading a party with two-thirds majority of the house with the support of the President, dissolved parliament in December 2020, that is being contested as the Supreme Court. Whatever decision it takes, Nepal’s political landscape will see uncertainty, horse-trading and potential attempts to move to autocratic rule.

It will be important to see what Nepal’s military will do in this context. Additionally, given the fact that both China and India are deeply concerned about an unstable Nepal emerging, there will be geopolitical maneuvers to bring back stability.

However, we need to bear in mind that Nepali economy and society has continued to move ahead for decades amidst political uncertainty. Uncertainty is the only constant.

5) Among Nepal’s overseas relationships, one that has been in focus has been that with the United States with the new Biden administration. How do you think the new administration might affect the shape of engagement in U.S.-Nepal relations, and what would you say are some of the most significant avenues for additional collaboration?

Nepal shares a good relationship with the United States, especially at the people-to-people level. The United States is a significant development partner in Nepal and a sizable number of Nepalis over the past three decades have lived in the United States. Indeed, Nepal continues to be among top countries in terms of sources of students, and education along with programs such as the Peace Corps provide continuity in the relationship.

Turning to sources of change, immigration will be one where we might see Nepal benefit from Biden’s policies. The U.S. Ambassador to Nepal has already been quick to reach out with the message of the United States wanting to engage more deeply in Nepal, and therefore we should see investments along with increase in development assistance. It bears noting that Nepal’s development is in line with the values the United States stands for and promotes, be it in terms of women empowerment, ethnic inclusion or addressing pending issues of transitional justice.