The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Delhi pushed back to square one
King Gyanendra addresses Nepal on Tuesday. (AP)

Washington, Feb. 1: King Gyanendra's decision to put himself in Nepal's driving seat has brought the neighbouring Hindu kingdom back to square one for the UPA government which has been treating Kathmandu as a foreign policy priority.

Although a statement by the foreign ministry today describes the king's actions as violative of the constitution, India's top priority would be to see that Nepal does not go back to becoming a staging post for subversion against India as in the 1990s.

For P.K. Hormis Tharakan, the new chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), there is an element of fatalism that Gyanendra check-mated his opponents in the country's long-running political chess game on the very day he took charge of the external intelligence agency.

Tharakan's last overseas posting as a RAW operative was in Kathmandu, where he oversaw the demolition of a huge Inter-Services Intelligence apparatus that Pakistan had built up and was using to mount covert operations against India.

India's challenge stemming from today's developments in Kathmandu is that these have come just as it appeared that New Delhi's pieces in Nepal were falling into place.

Just over a fortnight ago, India opened its consulate in Birgunj, which is the gateway to Nepal from Calcutta and Patna and has a large population of Indian origin.

After intense bilateral negotiations spread over months, an inland container depot, set up with World Bank assistance of $23 million, was to have opened in Birgunj today to facilitate a long-standing Nepalese demand for better facilities for imports into the kingdom coming through Calcutta port.

Also, last fortnight, New Delhi gave fresh impetus to its stagnating relations with Kathmandu by announcing an aid package of Rs 76 million for education and medical care in the kingdom.

There were more signals last fortnight that bilateral relations were moving forward when differences which held up an extradition treaty and an agreement for mutual legal assistance were resolved and drafts of those documents were finalised and initialled.

India will do nothing that will upset a painstakingly created security mechanism that has taken root, made up of a bilateral consultative group on security issues, a joint working group on border management and district coordination committees to oversee the implementation of decisions by these bodies.

It is significant that while South Block's statement on Gyanendra's decision to assume governing powers has described it as 'a serious setback to the cause of democracy', India has only expressed 'concern' and has not condemned the royal takeover.

The statement reiterates support for the kingdom's constitution. Today's palace action has been described as violative of the constitution strictly in the context of 'multi-party democracy and constitutional monarchy enshrined in Nepal's constitution as the two pillars of political stability'.

The strikingly mild statement underlines India's 'longstanding and unique relationship with Nepal' and makes no threats for a return to political pluralism.

India recently embarked on a major programme for modernising Nepal's police force by providing high-quality training in counter-insurgency and supplying equipment.

The programme was a fallout of India's advice to Nepal that the Maoist insurgency was more of a police problem than a military one. Delhi had also prevailed upon the US and some European countries to rationalise their arms supplies to Nepal in conformity with this view.

Earlier, some Western countries had made plans to supply heavy military equipment to the kingdom. India had privately expressed apprehension to those countries over such supplies even as it negotiated the agreement for equipping Nepal's police with training and supplies to fight Maoists.

For many decision-makers in the UPA government, the dilemmas posed by Gyanendra's action will be a replay of King Birendra's attempts in the 1980s to suppress democracy and the kingdom's difficult road since then on the way to a constitutional monarchy.

External affairs minister K. Natwar Singh was then a junior minister in South Block and foreign secretary Shyam Saran subsequently became ambassador in Kathmandu.

For Sonia Gandhi too, the dilemma will be to choose between Nepal's political parties which have been actively supported by her husband and mother-in-law and the imperatives of national security, for which the king now appears to be a more reliable guarantor.

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