The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Nowhere is the policy vacuum in India’s neighbourhood more evident than in Nepal. India’s foreign policy mantra for Nepal seems to be that monarchy and multi-party democracy are the twin pillars of stability in that country and neither should be weakened. In practice, India is looking on helplessly at the developments in Nepal though it believes that political parties ought not to be marginalized.

The ground situation in Nepal is a right royal mess. The monarchy and democracy are drifting apart. King Gyanendra has concentrated virtually all powers in his hands. Royal rituals are being revived. Recently the rice-eating ceremony of the royal grandson was declared a holiday. Pro-monarchy students’ unions are being revitalized in the name of saving the nation.

The king has also concentrated legislative and administrative powers in his person. Through a royal fiat, reminiscent of the pre-democracy days, he has increased the allowances drawn by the royal family from the state exchequer by nearly 100 per cent. Earlier, this would have required a cabinet recommendation and would have formed a part of the national budget. Now, the cabinet ministers are called to the palace to receive instructions, and ambassadorial appointments, transfers and promotions of all first class gazetted officers and above, are handled by the king himself.

Despite using the Royal Nepal Army against the Maoists, insurgency in the countryside continues unabated. At least 49 out of the 75 districts of the country are acutely affected by insurgency. There is no communication between 22 of these districts and Kathmandu. Although the arms used by the Maoists are not very sophisticated, they have set up their own internal arms production and supply lines for pipe-guns, socket bombs, pressure-cooker bombs and even banner bombs (pulling down a Maoist banner triggers off the bomb).

Nepal has decided to buy $ 17 million worth of M-16 guns from the United States of America. Kathmandu was unwilling to purchase more cost-effective Indian guns with a ready supply of spares. A specious argument is being given that the Nepali forces, while on peace-keeping missions abroad, had got used to US weapons.

Not quite by accident, the US has upgraded its presence in Nepal. Joint exercises are being organized between the US and Nepali army. The US Agency for International Development is trying to inject new life into its integrated security and development programme, with a former ambassador to the region being sent as consultant to the programme. The British too are getting ready to fish in troubled waters.

China, up to now, has followed a policy of keeping off Nepal. It recognizes that Nepal, because of its cultural and economic linkages with its southern neighbour, is India’s natural area of influence. The Chinese have also been careful not to supply arms to Nepal in the present context because even though they have disowned the Nepali Maoists, they do not seem to support a military solution to the insurgency.

The space vacated by India in Nepal is sought to be filled by Western countries — especially the US and United Kingdom. The net result of Indian inaction could well be that China may be forced to give up its hands-off policy.

But what is the Indian policy towards Nepal' Inexplicably, India is a mute spectator while the king openly invites foreign powers to become players in what is essentially its own backyard. It is not in India’s enlightened self-interest to allow a totally disorganized situation to fester in Nepal. Indian interests cannot be served by ignoring the political class and the Maoists and leaving it to the US and UK to sort out the mess in the mountain kingdom.

India’s friendship has been, and must continue to be, with the people of Nepal. Despite minor ups and downs in the relationship between the two countries, there is a tremendous people-to-people trust between the two countries. Our open borders are testimony to this.

Unlike the West, India cannot adopt the position that “order” is more important than participation in the political processes in Nepal. What happens in Nepal affects India directly. The Maoist insurgency in Nepal is linked to the Naxalite movement in India, with the Maoist dagger passing through the heart of India from Bengal to Maharashtra. If India helps Nepal convert the Maoist movement into a social-democratic movement through negotiations and the Maoists to enter the democratic mainstream, there would be collateral benefits for India too.

For this, it is essential that India rethink its Nepal policy. The mandarins in South Block need to answer the following questions clearly: how can India help Nepali political parties find their feet' What should be India’s approach to the Maoists' Should not India be encouraging a dialogue between the democratic forces and the Maoists' And most important, why should India continue to hand over Nepali Maoists arrested in India to be tortured by an absolutist monarchy when the latter gives India no leverage in that country'

India must shed its disdain for the Nepali political class. It is true that the parties are in a disarray. It is also true that Nepali political leaders have a schizophrenic attitude towards India — privately they all claim to be India’s friends but their public persona is often anti-Indian. But New Delhi must understand their compulsions.

India is an easy target, given its size and Nepal’s dependence on it. Blaming everything on India absolves the political class from examining the deep malaise it suffers from. This attitude and the problems associated with it will go away only when Nepali politics becomes mature. Nurturing it — not killing it in its infancy — will help democracy in Nepal come of age and not let anti-Indianism become the touchstone of Nepali nationalism.

Of the political parties, only Girija Prasad Koirala’s Nepali Congress has taken the monarchy head-on. The party has even threatened to give up its support for a constitutional monarchy and adopt a republican position. As of now, the septuagenarian Koirala is touring the length and breadth of the country, demanding the restoration of democracy through the formation of an all-party government with full legislative and executive powers under Article 128 of the constitution, the restoration of parliament through elections, all legislative changes to be routed through parliament and negotiations between the Maoists and a representative government of the people. The only other party that matters, the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), is not clear on its stand on the monarchy.

However, New Delhi does not want to have anything to do with Koirala or his party because the present dispensation in New Delhi is not well-disposed towards him and his attempt to pass on his political inheritance to his daughter, Sujata Koirala. If some sections in South Block expected Sher Bahadur Deuba to be a replacement for the wily Koirala, then recent events have only underlined their naiveté.

India must learn to deal with the Nepali Congress once again and help sort out its internal mess. Although Koirala is proving that there is more life in him than people half his age, he should be encouraged to put a proper succession plan in place. India’s hands-off policy will only encourage the king and the palace to bring in the international forces — the great geo-political game, as it were. And that is not in India’s interest.

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