There was a time when the politicians of Nepal stood shoulder-to-shoulder with India’s national leaders. Jawaharlal Nehru and Bisweshwor Prasad Koirala consulted each other as equals on matters of governance, but how times have changed. The most powerful politician in the country today, chairman of the largest party, has little or no access to India’s political class. Other than assigned South Block diplomats, his closest links are with the first and second rank operatives of the ‘agencies’.
Political giants like Chandra Shekhar who took personal interest in Nepal have passed from the scene. Girija Prasad Koirala was the last Nepali leader able to engage the Indian leadership, and his departure has relegated Kathmandu to the peripheral vision of New Delhi. Exasperated by the continuous chaos in Kathmandu, and with evidently little interest in the delicate Nepali transition, India’s political elite has left Nepal policy in the hands of the diplomats, the intelligence agencies and unaccountable Nepali interlocutors trusted by the Indian Embassy.
It is under these conditions that the Maoist-Madhesbadi coalition of Baburam Bhattarai was rammed through, a non-political technocratic fix that has destroyed much of the software of representative government built with such difficulty since 1990. This is the ‘government by remote-control’ if ever there was one, though Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal has not used his coinage against the vice-chairman prime minister till now.
The Nepal-India bilateral relationship can be a resounding example of cohabitation in the Southasian neighbourhood, which India is said to require to achieve world-power status (see March 2012 Centre for Policy Research study by Shyam Saran et al). A stable region is not possible without pluralism in the Subcontinent, however, and attempts at forging peace while neglecting democracy could prove painful.
We all know of the Kathmandu intellectual’s tendency to see an Indian conspiracy behind every border pillar. Recent events have proven this much-ballyhooed anti-Indianism to be a sham. It is the nature of Kathmandu’s powerbrokers, polished to an art by the Maoists, to swing between extremist tirades and wretched sycophancy. The rank opportunist of the ultra-nationalists is seen in the lack of reaction when the Indian state has been more proactive (some might say interventionist) on Nepal than at any time since 1990. The reason is that the knee-jerk ultras are part of the Bhattarai regime.
It was King Mahendra who defined ultra-nationalism as synonymous with anti-Indianism, and his present-day incarnation is Chairman Dahal. When he resigned as prime minister in May 2009, Dahal went on a two-year binge against India that hurt Nepal grievously. Much of the blame for this period of anti-Indianism was stacked on former ambassador Rakesh Sood, but the real cause was Dahal’s need to consolidate hold over his rank-and-file at a time of weakness. It took nearly three years for the chairman to understand that the campaign was getting him nowhere, and so he let Bhattarai be prime minister as a peace offering to India.
Every country’s bilateral relationships relate to self-interest, and it cannot be otherwise. India’s interests on Nepal are defined by the search for stability in the Central Himalaya, preventing militant movement across the open border, and the potential of hydropower and stored water. To achieve these goals in the medium to long term, one would have thought, it is in New Delhi’s interest to prioritize democracy and rule of law.
Of course, there is no one ‘India’. We have South Block and North Block; the states of India on three sides; the intelligence agencies, RAW and IB; and the Indian Army with interest in regional security and Gorkha recruitment. New Delhi’s Nepal-wallahs are the political lobbyists, corporate middlemen and analysts, largely at one with Raisina Hill. It does not help that the category of ‘imperial progressives’ in the Indian capital are willing to experiment with radicalism in next-door Nepal, and they would be supportive of the present adventurism.
All said and done, Nepal’s peace, democracy and stability are matters for the Nepali polity to chart and defend. If New Delhi’s current Nepal policy is thought to be inimical to their country, the opinion-makers in Kathmandu should protest, but that seems a tall order. Many of our key politicians are compromised by the endless personal favours they seek from the Indian Embassy, including educational seats and scholarships. The members of civil society, meanwhile, do not have the confidence required for frank discussion and alternate between flattery and denunciation.
The Maoists used India as the staging ground for their insurgency. The Indian state would not have had a policy to foment revolution in Nepal, but the Maoist leaders who spent almost the entire decade of the conflict in safe-houses in Noida, Faridabad and elsewhere certainly had their Indian handlers and escorts. New Delhi was in the know, but kept a hands-off policy until the Nepal rebellion attained an export potential. At that point, the 12 Point Agreement was facilitated by New Delhi, with Baburam Bhattarai as the Maoist handmaiden.
The insurgents came above-ground in 2006 but they prevaricated, the peace process dragged. India once again felt the need to do something, and that was to push the formation of the Bhattarai coalition. This happened at a time of diplomatic transition, with a new foreign secretary taking over in South Block and Rakesh Sood making way for present ambassador, Jayant Prasad. It is hard to believe that this coalition of the UCPN (Maoist) and disparate Madhesbadi parties is the handiwork of diplomats and not of the operatives.
But why did India become proactive? The answer can only be presented in supposition, and perhaps New Delhi’s right hand did not know what the left was up to. The Bhattarai coalition could have been pushed to force a break-up of the UCPN (Maoist) party. Someone may have believed that nothing but a Maoist-led government could deliver disbandment of the cantonments. In extremis, a few apparatchiks may have wanted to experiment with a subservient Maoist-run state, to see if that would be better for India than a democratic neighbor.
On Nepal, New Delhi politicians’ exasperation and apathy seems to have left a free hand for ill-advised diplomacy and adventurist operatives.
India’s domestic requirements may have been the reason to corral the Madhesbadi parties and elevate the Maoists, despite the latter’s depredations on the people. However, the act of showcasing the gentrified Nepal Maoists before the rampaging Naxals does not seem to be working. For whatever reason, New Delhi was willing to use its considerable clout to have Bhattarai end the peace process, whereas it could have done us the favour during the two previous governments. And how does one square the circle, India helping to establish a Maoist regime in Nepal while treating rebels of the same pedigree as terrorists on its own soil?
The Bhattarai coalition was formed with the two largest democratic parties kept outside, with immense loss to the value of the Nepali state. Having fashioned the present regime, the Indian side cannot shirk responsibility for the five point Maoist declaration and the Four Point Agreement between the UCPN (Maoist) and the United Madhesi Democratic Front which heralded the coalition formation. These documents promise an undefined ‘self-determination’, identity-based group entry into the national army, cancellation of court cases against accused perpetrators, and pardon for those already convicted by the courts.
The present coalition has lowered the bar on every aspect of governance, manhandling of the civil service, a corruption so rampant that no one is counting any more, the attempt to desecrate the site of Lumbini, and impunity exemplified by a prime minister who seeks presidential pardon for a crony murderer. From the perspective of Kathmandu, this propping up of an anarchical regime by New Delhi is realpolitik run amok.
While the move to assemble the Bhattarai coalition may have had the limited goal of concluding the peace process, it has taken India down the labyrinth of Nepal’s transitional and constitutional politics. It must be difficult not to get involved in a country with so many unresolved issues, once you get started, but Nepal certainly is not benefiting from the grand tradition of constitutionalism in India.
If India is keen on peace, at least here there is coincidence with what the Nepali people want. However, New Delhi’s acts and omissions now seem to be impacting on the definition of federalism as well as the form of governance (parliamentary system or directly-elected executive). From what one can make out, New Delhi seems to favour identity-led federalism, and the creation of plains-specific provinces in the Tarai.
Such a provincial demarcation would have geopolitical implications, and perhaps New Delhi knows something we don’t. The historical marginalization of the plains people by Kathmandu is a cruel reality, but the economic impoverishment would only be attenuated by a plains-specific province. One can only presume that the politicians back in Delhi know of the move towards identity-based federalism in Nepal, creating new units in the frontier arc from Uttarakhand to Sikkim, including the Avadhi, Bhojpuri and Maithili regions of the plains in between.
The politicians at least would know that only a necessarily raucous democracy in Nepal can provide the stability that India believes to be in its interest. It is best to allow Nepal to evolve democratically, constitutionally from within, while standing up for the universal values of human rights, peace and pluralism.
The writer is author most recently of Peace Politics of Nepal (Himal Books)