Nepal: Spies out! Netas in

From The (06 August, 2014)

The primary positive result of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Nepal was in the evident push-back of the Indian intelligence agencies that have been manhandling Nepal politics for many years now.

When people say the two-day visit was been successful in taking back the bilateral relationship to the political plane, essentially the reference (mostly left unsaid) is to the wresting of initiative from the ‘agencies’. These entities have managed to create a labyrinth of unaccountability that has hurt bilateral relations in numerous sectors. They have allowed some individuals to strut the stage claiming to have the ear of the Lainchaur Embassy, South Block, 10 Race Course Road, what have you.

Deep suspicions have been allowed to fester that are not in the interest of Nepal-India, nor South Asia as a whole. Two polities that should have had exemplary relations across an open border have deliberately been allowed to grow apart.

Let’s be clear, the overt activism and attempt at micro-management by India’s ‘agencies’ has primarily to do with the weakness of the tired leaders of Nepal, who find themselves at the end of a political cycle (more on this another time).

Of course, this weakening began with the conflict era, when New Delhi’s Prime Minister’s Office during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government allowed the Research and Analysis Wing and Intelligence Bureau to engage with the Maoists. Sadly, this intelligence activism was continued in the 7-8 years of ‘transition’ due to the pusillanimity of Kathmandu’s political class.

There were also Nepali politicians corrupted through direct cash grants and even scholarships for children, others by political ambitions they felt could only be fulfilled by submitting to the operatives that moved about so openly in Kathmandu, with nary a veil. This is how the unbelievable micro-management began in all sectors, even putting many Indian diplomats nonplussed and on the back foot. But because these were the intelligence agencies, while it was certainly happening, no one could say to what extent…

New Delhi’s national-level officialdom seemed to think all was okay on Nepal-India relations while on the ground second- and third-level apparatchiks were running amok, revelling in the ability to wield influence over a whole — and sizeable — country.

What was the budget for all this hyperactivity, who was sanctioning it, how much was spent, and who would have built mansions and bought plots in Lucknow or Chandigarh out of money supposedly spent on undercover Nepal assignments?

Will anyone be doing financial auditing? What, after all, was the capability of these intelligence operatives before whom the Kathmandu political class went belly up? We do know that the ‘best and brightest’ go to the IFS, IAS or IPS, and the muddy murk of intelligence gathering surely promotes mediocrity.

And we had heard that intelligence work has to be undercover, but in Nepal they were practically handing out visiting cards. (Note: While the focus here is on Indian agencies, certainly Nepal has to be alert regarding the intelligence activism of other countries near and far).

So many Kathmandu’s media commentators and ‘fellow-travellers’ simply looked the other way while all this was happening. The grand muftis of Kathmandu’s opinion-dom were all writing about everything else but this dangerous trend overtaking the polity, and this helped make the micro-management a reality that came to be accepted by the full hierarchy of Nepali politics.

It did not help that the ‘high end’ New Delhi intelligentsia ignored Nepal, forgetting the importance of this country/economy’s stable and democratic advance for the advancement of the poverty-stricken parts of neighbouring India — Uttar Pradesh (particularly Purvanchal) and Bihar, to begin with.

The few New Delhi scholars and analysts who wrote about Nepal were unwilling to let on what they knew or could have guessed. It required a shake-up like the ‘outsider’ Narendra Modi’s arrival in New Delhi for these old hands to suddenly shift gears, do a 180 degree turn in their punditry — and start telling all and sundry that the ‘India-Nepal relationship has to be taken back to the political plane’. (Some newly arrived observers clearly had less baggage and more perspective, given their distance from the strategic affairs crowd, and so did sound the alarm lately on Indian intel in Nepal).

Meanwhile, this call for the rollback to political engagement by the old-and-compromised analysts became so strident that it became embarrassing to those who have been repeating the refrain since a few years.

In Kathmandu, the very individuals who sat, drank and planned with the spooks now wanted to show obeisance to the new political order evidently in the making in Delhi. These individuals never actually challenged the overt activism of the agencies as it was happening, trying instead to push the intelligence reportage in the preferred direction. This is evident in the books, blogs and articles that these individuals have been writing recently even as they adjust their sails to the new wind direction.

A review of these prolific pandits — who believed in the intelligence agent as both source and collaborator — can only come after a full study of their archived output. For now, one can only smile at the retroactive wisdom being displayed by the folk who ask the Modi government to take the relationship from the bureaucratic/agency-led to the political.

Prime Minister Modi has come and gone. How successful this trip was for India and its politics/geopolitics is something for New Delhi commentators to evaluate perhaps. Whether it was kosher for the prime minister of a constitutionally secular country to use religion as publicly as Modi did around his visit to the Pashupatinath precincts, too, is for Indian analysts to consider.

As for Nepal, amidst the atmospherics, the primary ‘upalabhdi‘ has been that he has created conditions for politician-to-politician links between two sovereign nations, to be managed by diplomats as directed rather than the unaccountable cloak-and-dagger category. It remains to be seen whether the nervous, agitated and ever-quarreling political class of Kathmandu can respond to this fine turn of events, which was of course not their own doing.

End note:

Shyam Saran, India’s former foreign secretary and (before that) Ambassador to Nepal, writing in the Himalayan Times newspaper exclusive front page opinion piece: ‘What are the prospects for India-Nepal relations in the wake of this important bilateral visit? The restoration of high level political engagement between the two countries is arguably the most important development… A relationship as important as this should never have been devolved, by default if not by design, to bureaucrats and agencies, with increasingly limited political involvement.’

My response: Astu.

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