In Delhi, there is hardly any interest relating to Nepal—especially among folks below 35 years—be it in government, the private sector, academia, sports or the development world. A few who stay connected with Nepal are purely related to the arts, music and culture. In terms of perception, Kathmandu is as distant from Delhi as is Kohima. The only difference is that the first is the capital of a sovereign country and the second is the capital of a state of India. Both these cities have now been relegated to the category of ‘studied in geography in school’.
Or people get to hear about them when there is some untoward incident—killings, natural calamities or some trouble or the other: No different from how Kandahar in Afghanistan, Khartoum in Sudan or Karbala in Iraq is perceived by all of us around the world. We read about these cities when they hit the media headlines due to some negative news and then forget about them altogether. The apathy of the international community was exhibited during the recent economic crisis: Nepal remains a country that will make a blip on the radar when people die; but at other times, frankly, no one cares.
The problem is that, in this age of private media, advertisement-influenced viewership preferences and global geopolitics, countries have to make strategies to seek global attention rather than the other way around. Singapore was successful in the 1960s and 1970s, and in the 1980s and 1990s, the UAE, especially Dubai, managed to grab global attention. From the turn of this century till the present, it is countries like Qatar or Rwanda that have been able to draw global attention. These countries have been able to nurture long-term relationships with the global powers, be it in politics, business or academic leadership. They have not only been able to lure thought leaders to visit their countries repeatedly and draw the attention of the world, they have turned these thought leaders into key brand ambassadors for them.
During the British Raj in the subcontinent, the Himalayan kingdoms enjoyed a great status as they were seen as buffer states between China and the British Empire. These kingdoms were seen as geo-politically important ones and ruled by mystical rulers. The British enjoyed friendship with the rulers of these kingdoms. British kings came to hunt in Nepal during the Rana regime and Queen Elizabeth came in 1961. The ruler of the most powerful empire would be the guest of Nepali rulers and engage in the popular elite sports of those times. In the context of the 21st century (since hunting animals is now seen as being primitive in global discourse), it would be like the president of the United States playing golf with our head of government and exchanging thoughts on geo-politics and the future of the relationship.
When the rich and famous visited Nepal, they would have many media people, travel writers and anthropologists in tow. In the 1960s and 1970s, Nepal was featured in many issues of National Geographic. The heroism of the Gurkha soldiers, most recently displayed in the Falklands War, ensured that people in the UK knew about Nepal and the Nepalis. In the US, the Peace Corps went back and shared great stories. They continued to be in touch with Nepal as they moved into positions of power and influence, ensuring Nepal got its due attention.
In India, people have fond memories of their first foreign trip, being surrounded by foreign goods and honeymoon trips that had those casino coupons thrown in. At the casino, not only were the drinks and food free, but they could hobnob with Bollywood stars and people they saw on Page 3 of the newspapers. Back in India, there were Nepalis who lived with them as household help or drivers. When they grew up and became financially able, they helped the Nepali families who worked with them, giving jobs to their children in their businesses or just taking care of major health expenses. These stories are getting fewer, and the disconnect is increasing.
The disconnect is alarming, and Nepal could be just another country on the map. There are 54 countries in Africa. How many of them can we remember and feel connected to? For Nepal to continue to be in people’s hearts and not as a country that just needs sympathy, it needs to work hard. It cannot join the league of countries that receive money every time someone watching scenes of trouble on TV feels guilty about the expensive single malt whisky he or she is nursing, and reaches for the smartphone to make a donation.
Nepal needs to woo the youth of the world who will become its brand ambassadors for many years to come. They will not only visit Nepal again but connect Nepalis to people of influence as they rise in their profession and wealth. Nepal needs to get global thought leaders and innovators excited so that the global media will follow them, and Nepal will get global attention for the right things. Perhaps, Nepal should host a global innovation summit or a global mindfulness summit that may attract the CEOs of global companies to ideate with the Himalaya in the background. We will not get them as investors for years to come, but they can help the world to come to Nepal. There has to be a starting point.