During an interactive session at the recently-concluded Ncell Literature Festival, veteran Indian journalist Vinod Mehta spoke about how India continues to distrust the Maoists and how it is getting worried about Nepal’s increasing proximity to China. He was also of the view that the overall Indian policy vis-à-vis Nepal was ‘negative’. Mehta reiterated what has long been suspected. Ever since the Maoists emerged from underground politics, India has pushed for its thorough transformation into a democratic party, which was why it insisted on irreversible progress in the peace process before larger political issues could be discussed. It wasn’t a surprise that the US, whose Nepal policy hews closely to India’s, delisted the Maoists from its ‘Terrorist Exclusion List’ on the same day that the PLA integration process entered its decisive phase.
India, the facilitator of the historic 12-point accord in New Delhi in 2005, was first spooked by the Nepali Maoists in the post 2006 dispensation when Pushpa Kamal Dahal, in his capacity as the prime minster, sacked the then army chief in 2009, in what was interpreted by New Delhi as the first step towards the stated Maoist goal of ‘state capture’. India intervened to prevent Rookmangud Katawal’s unceremonious sacking and Dahal was forced to step down.
Since, Dahal has publicly admitted that it was wrong of him to resign in 2009, which effectively means he would have had to go back on sacking Katawal. In other words, Dahal would have had to give in to New Delhi, once the Maoists’ arch-enemy. More recently, he has been making many overtures towards India, most notably by backing Baburam Bhattarai’s prime ministerial bid, as it became clear that New Delhi was not ready to trust Dahal yet and it would serve his future presidential aspirations well not to be seen as too keen on government without first taking the southern neighbor into confidence. Following Dahal’s exit, India was clearly against another Maoist leadership of government, but if it had to compromise, it had to be Bhattarai, its trusted ally, at the helm. And compromise it did.
Now, as Bhattarai’s continued claim on PM’s chair is being hotly contested, there are reasons to believe that he is still New Delhi’s man for the job, for the lack of better options. Although the dispute for supremacy in Nepali Congress is largely believed to be a product of the battle for supremacy between Sher Bahadur Deuba and Ram Chandra Poudel, there is more going on than meets the eye. It is remarkable that the party has not been able to settle on Sushil Koirala as its PM candidate, even when Deuba and Poudel seemed ready to clear the road for Koirala if he was interested. It has been said that Koirala has been unwilling to project himself as the PM candidate because he does not aspire for any public post. The belief that a leader who came through a bitter party leadership election might not be interested in occupying the highest office in the land that his party position entitles him to, is rather naïve. Instead, the answer to this conundrum might also be found due south.
Could it be that Koirala has been reluctant to throw his hat in the ring because he is in disfavor with India? It has been interesting to observe how Koirala has chosen to stay put in Kathmandu while virtually all of the top leaders of other big parties have taken the time to visit India on one pretext or the other. It is possible that India has made known its reluctance about Koirala, someone it jailed for the 1973 landing of a hijacked plane on its soil. In the past, Delhi has also indicated that Sushil Koirala may have connections with Pakistani elements that were inimical to Indian interests. Koirala’s hesitancy might easily be a veiled acceptance of his tenuous chances of leading the government given India’s misgivings about his past. The denouement of this prolonged drama came on Sunday when Koirala announced he was no longer contesting for the PM post.
But irrespective of its position on Koirala, it makes sense for India to stick with Bhattarai if the South Block mandarins fear that his ouster, with no replacement candidate in sight, could invite even more instability in Nepal, which could easily spill over the porous border. This might also be the reason why many of the Nepal ‘experts’ in India are opposing new CA polls on the ground that opting for election of another CA might jeopardize the gains made by its old avatar. And who knows what kind of forces such an election might give rise to in these volatile times? Thus, on the balance of things, India might continue to back Bhattarai for the foreseeable future, at least until the time it is convinced that some other dispensation can serve its interests better.
If indeed India wants to see Bhattarai continue as PM, as seems to be the case, it must have leaned towards the Madhesi parties in the ruling coalition not to disturb the apple cart. It is instructive that the Maoist-Madhesi alliance seemed to be consolidating at a time India had started to express its reservations with the demarcation of Nepal along strict ethnic lines. Indian ambassador to Nepal Jayant Prasad recently said that although federalism was necessary for Nepal, the country should be mindful that it is based on “economic and social aspects”. This interpretation is further supported by Dahal’s statement that state restructuring should be done by keeping the interest of our close neighbors in mind. Equally significant was Dahal’s admission, as the head of the Federal Democratic Republican Alliance that includes the Madheshi parties in the government, that single-identity based ethnic states were unviable in Nepal.
It is not farfetched to assume NC and UML too must have been discouraged by Delhi against an immediate change. Even with a month to go for the expiry of CA’s deadline, there were chances a motion of no confidence against Bhattarai government (that NC and UML were mulling) could have been passed, especially with the Baidya faction of UCPN (Maoist) expressing its support for such a motion. Why didn’t they go ahead with their threat of no confidence vote? The only likely answer seems to be that India was against it.
While it is true that Nepal is not at the top of India’s foreign policy priority list, because of Nepal’s strategic location and the potential harm it might cause to Indian interests—through the infiltration of criminal and terrorist elements from Pakistan, and the growing influence of China on what it considers its backyard—India must at all times be watchful of developments in Nepal. UCPN (Maoist)’s U-turn that it will no longer back NC with leadership of new electoral government could also have come from India’s script book. India clearly feels that it is much better to have one of its trusted men at the top than risk upsetting the apple cart by asking him to step down, risking a total political vacuum.
Perhaps unwittingly New Delhi is helping prolong the current impasse by continuing to back Bhattarai and by putting pressure on Madhesi and opposition parties not to further ‘destabilize’ the fractured Nepali polity. This raises some interesting questions: Is India against the whole federal agenda now that it has seen the ‘divisive tendencies’ it can engender? In the days ahead, will it make its preference for territorial federalism clear, whether many political actors here like it or not? And will the destabilizing recent political developments in India distract it from its affairs near abroad? Whatever the case, and whether we like it or not, India (and to a lesser but increasing extent, China) will exert a huge influence on the political developments in the country so long as the transition period does not come to a decisive end.