Time to mend fences

From Hindustan Times (24 July, 2012)

Indo-Nepal ties are in danger of being downgraded to that of satrap and supplicant. New Delhi must not ignore this.
Nepal was sheltered for decades because of the friendship between its democrats and India’s political class, struck during the days of Indian Independence. BP Koirala enjoyed a wide range of contacts with national and regional leaders, including Jawaharlal Nehru, JP Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia and LN Mishra.

Today, Nepal is reduced to the level of Maoist leaders Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Prachanda) and Baburam Bhattarai who seem content in their contact with Indian desk officers and handlers. The most vibrant bilateral relationship in the subcontinent, unique with its historical open border, is in danger of being downgraded to that of satrap and supplicant.

The bilateral realpolitik that has privileged the UCPN-Maoist is the result of Indian politicians having tuned off. Exasperated by the continuous chaos in Kathmandu, they have left Nepal policy in the hands of the mandarins and apparatchiks. Unable to demand answers from accountable New Delhi politicos, Kathmandu’s observers are at a loss as to who’s taking the decisions and why.

This minds-off policy is a mistake because the two countries can only gain as mutually respectful democracies. While the bureaucrat will look for technical fixes, it requires an engaged statesperson to understand that the stability India desires in Nepal cannot happen in the absence of an open, self-correcting democracy.

Having worked with permutations from absolute monarchy to parliamentary anarchy, the Indian State seems to be on the lookout for whoever will ‘deliver the goods’, viz hydropower; stored water for irrigation, navigation and urban use; security across the frontier; and shared economic growth with Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in particular. However, the stability to make this happen cannot be had by coddling non-democratic combines that reject pluralism and human rights.

The pusillanimous attitude of Kathmandu’s politicians needs no defence — they tend to be slavishly pro-India in power and vehemently anti-India in opposition. The Maoists have polished this proclivity to an art, secretly beseeching New Delhi while stoking the ultra-nationalist inferno at home. Kathmandu’s apologists of the radical left, kneejerk in their anti-Indianism, are today neutralised by their proximity to the Maoists. However, they may get their second wind now that the Maoist party has split.

Like the ‘useful idiots’ in Kathmandu, a vocal coterie in India thinks it is chic to ridicule Nepal’s parliamentary parties as retrograde conservatives. Forgetting that the Maoists are comfortably part of the national establishment like nowhere else in the world, they disparage the very democratic forces that reached out for peace in 2005 (with New Delhi’s facilitation), at great peril to themselves. No one is explaining why liberal democracy is the ideal everywhere else but should be regarded as passé for Nepal.

As a rule, Kathmandu’s intelligentsia maintains an exaggerated sense of New Delhi’s ability to influence national politics, but things have changed lately. Having given up on the parliamentary parties as feckless forces, New Delhi seems to have decided to wade in further than it ever had, seeking to define the neighbour’s trajectory in the peace process, government formation and even constitution-writing. It helped cobble together the Bhattarai-led Maoist-Madhesbadi coalition in August 2011 and got involved in the federalism debate.

Hard to believe, but India was lobbying for one or two Tarai-based provinces, which made little sense from the perspective of devolution of power, regional stability, or dignity and economic well-being of the plains people of Nepal. Amidst the murk of deniability, it is unclear whether this proactive energy had to do with geopolitical fears of China, the dangers of militant infiltration across the open border, the language politics of the Ganga plain vis-à-vis Hindi, Maithili, Bhojpuri and Awadhi, or something else.

A former JNU professor has just written in a book of facilitating contact with the Nepali rebels as far back as June 2002, when Dahal-Bhattarai promised in a letter to the Indian government not to harm India’s “critical interests” — this even while they conducted war in Nepal (Nepal in Transition, 2012). Thereafter, he writes, it became easier for the Nepali Maoists to move about within India.

Such bombshell revelations fuel misgivings about the Maoist insurgency vis-à-vis India. By his own account, chairman Dahal spent eight years during the decade of insurgency outside Nepal. How much did New Delhi know? If this was a case of one hand being unaware of the other, it is time to share information and review procedures.

The extended political transition has been deadly for Nepal’s State institutions and political process. The Maoist cheated on peace over four years, the Constituent Assembly collapsed and political polarisation has deepened. The social democratic forces are weakened, while the radical left and the royalist, Hindutva-led right have struck root. Ex-king Gyanendra Shah has been buoyed enough to come out openly for a revival of the monarchy.

All of South Asia benefits from peace and democratic stability in Nepal, one that rejects religious fundamentalism, violent politics and communal exclusivity. While the mess in the country is primarily the doing of Kathmandu’s political class, New Delhi should be careful that its acts and omissions do not rock the Nepali boat.

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