The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- India's security fears hold sway when dealing with neighbours

The political crisis in Nepal continues unabated and it seems that there is little India can do to influence the course of events. This crisis is a product of deep-seated structural issues in Nepalese society. To be fair to India, it is never easy to influence the actions of rulers like King Gyanendra, whose paranoia makes them immune to both the interests of their own people and international pressure. But while many political observers had seen Gyanendra's actions as coming, the government of India woke up too late. Our Nepal policy has also revealed some fundamental mistakes in our approach towards our neighbours.

Our fundamental mistake in dealing with many of our neighbours is this. We have fallen prey to our own security fears. To put it provocatively, if we had aimed at genuine friendship with our neighbours we would have gained our security. But when we aim at our security, we invite their enmity. It is astonishing that despite the weight of economic interdependence, social relations and geographical destiny, India came to carry so little credibility in Nepal. We should acknowledge that this was a result of our encasing Nepal in a relationship of subordination. In the Fifties we decided who would rule them. Nepal's sovereignty over its foreign affairs was always attenuated by India's concerns: matters from building hydro projects to roads required India's tacit approval. Even though we were in many ways a benign power, we were ultimately paternalist. The overall structure of the relationship lent itself to creating a politics of resentment in Nepal. And this relationship was driven by our conception of security, not by the imperatives of development in Nepal.

A security syndrome also affected our judgments about the Maoists. We vacillated too long before realizing that the king's policies had little to do with effectively dealing with the Maoists. As reprehensible as their methods are, they draw upon legitimate grievances and are a viable political movement. Indeed, the present conjuncture is a unique opportunity to bring many of them into the political mainstream. Some of the Maoists realize that their long-term goals require them to gain broader political legitimacy. Democracy itself can be a path to power. The Maoists have, for the first time, allowed regular political parties to operate in areas under their control. Ironically, it may turn out that the left parties inside Nepal may find it more difficult to do business with the Maoists than the Nepal Congress. But there is a real danger that the Indian government is not doing enough to establish political links with the Maoists. A great failing of our policy is that we often let the intelligence establishment define our political objectives. Rather, we should be clear on our political objectives and use whatever means are necessary to achieve them.

Our attitude to the Maoists has been inexplicable. India was the first state to declare them terrorists (even before Nepal did). But when we actually declared them terrorists, we then did nothing to crack down on them and curb their activities. Now that there is an opportunity for them to be part of the political dialogue, we want someone to destroy them. So we end up neither with a capacity to instil fear, nor with any political capital to deploy. The singular lesson in our dealing with the Maoists is this: there has to be clarity of objectives and a determination to stick to a strategy.

We were under the illusion that the king's actions were about fighting Maoists. India read out the riot act almost two weeks too late, and there is some evidence that India's message was not as categorically received as India had hoped. The king is still reading too many caveats into our messages and apparently believes that India and the United States of America will not put maximum pressure for fear of sending him closer to China. India, at this juncture, has very little locus standi: even our ambassador can be sent away without an audience.

But we must relentlessly use the office of every international mediator to impress upon the king that now is his last opportunity. There appears now to be a groundswell of republicanism inside Nepal, and the last defendants of a constitutional monarchy are fast disappearing. Indeed, there is a danger that we will fall between two stools: the new forces in Nepal, who have the momentum of history on their side, will not remember India as a real friend of democracy. India blockaded a whole country when it thought fit, but continued to vacillate over arms supplies to an errant monarch. The international community will have to think of a decent exit strategy for the king, or he will have no reason to relent. But it is astonishing that we have not been able to even negotiate a major public visit by non-government figures to political prisoners, and are consoling ourselves that select releases are a sign of progress.

But the most important lesson for India is this. Foreign ministries around the world have lots of failings in common: they confuse diplomatic exchange with long-term strategy. What India needs in the Nepal crisis is deep links with the important actors, the Royal Nepal Army, the Maoists and others. Foreign offices are not good at cultivating these links. They are slow to respond to the ramifications of domestic politics in any country. They have a professional bias towards risk averseness, which inevitably leads them towards the status quo. And they often confuse form with substance. I recently had the awkward experience of a very distinguished foreign service officer, in a seminar on Nepal, requesting the speakers to be 'polite' when referring to King Gyanendra, since he was the head of a neighbouring state. I can only imagine how effective such officers, caught in the virtual world of diplomacy, are at conveying messages.

Our ministry of external affairs is also peculiarly reluctant to send out clear messages. In retrospect, the first press conference after the prime minister cancelled his visit to Dhaka probably sent the wrong signal to Nepal. It not only managed to confuse messages to Bangladesh with a message to Nepal but it was also that our message to the king was not pointed.

Of course, any progress will not be easy. But India has to work on the following assumption. First, neutrality is not an option in two senses. We are not perceived as neutral and in the present circumstances even acts of omission have ramifications. Second, in the past we have attenuated Nepal's sovereignty based on our security concerns. Now we should perform a constructive role in maintaining democracy in Nepal. We should trust that whichever regime comes to power in Nepal, in the long run, it will have to work out a propitious relationship with India. Therefore we ought not to be distracted by short-term anti-India rhetoric.

It is about time that Nepalese society writes a constitution for itself, rather than being handed one by the king. Even restoring the suspended parliament may, after all that has happened, not be enough. The convening of a constitutional assembly can be made compatible with a place for a constitutional monarchy. But time is running out. There is still possibility of negotiation, but the message has to get through to the king that he has no option but to take assured steps towards democracy.

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