Nepal to Delhi: junk sentiment and special ties

Read more below

By SANKARSHAN THAKUR in Delhi
  • Published 2.05.08
  •  

New Delhi, May 2: Nepal’s newly empowered Maoists are pushing for a qualitative change in relations with India that would put ties on a more pragmatic keel.

The polite podium talk at the foreign office-sponsored conference on bilateral relations in Patna last week barely masked a new hard-knuckled Maoist approach that seeks to eschew any “special relationship” with New Delhi and wants more formal state-to-state ties instead.

C.P. Gajurel, Maoist politburo member and chief foreign policy planner, said at the conference: “We are not in favour of the so-called special relationship with India, we prefer a less sentimental, more formal relationship between our countries.”

Gajurel, who served several years in a Chennai jail on charges of using a fake passport before being released in 2006, has long been a critic of India’s role in Nepal, especially of the manner in which New Delhi has sought to moderate the power balance, even to the extent of supporting the monarchy. Several senior Maoists, including politburo member and wife of party ideologue Baburam Bhattarai, Hisila Yami, attended the Patna conference.

“Special relationship” has often been a euphemism for New Delhi’s deep penetration into Nepal’s internal affairs and the Maoists appear to be making it clear that they want the freedom to run their country’s affairs independent of foreign influence.

Irked by New Delhi’s election-eve support to the Nepali Congress, which did poorly at the polls, the Maoists are sending two messages in the immediate: that India isn’t the best judge of Nepal’s unfolding political dynamics, and, two, even if it is, it has no right to impose its will, subtly or bluntly.

The Prime Minister’s special envoy, Shyam Saran, was repeatedly questioned by Nepali delegates at the seminar over why national security adviser M.K. Narayanan had publicly predicted a Nepali Congress victory a few days ahead of polling. A discomfited Saran argued that it may have been Narayanan’s “private view” but that left the Nepalis utterly unconvinced.

“The truth is that India has historically influenced key political decisions in Nepal and the Maoists are now saying that must end,” a conference delegate told The Telegraph.

“India remains Nepal’s most important neighbour and to that extent, the top Maoists like Prachanda have been assuring New Delhi about maintaining harmonious relations,” he said. “But that does not mean India can continue with its old ways in Kathmandu. If the Maoists assume full control, they will bring about changes in the manner this relationship is conducted.”

Prachanda’s Maoists haven’t secured a majority in the new Constituent Assembly — 220 seats in the 601-member House — but they have more than twice the numbers of the runners-up and would seek to dominate the course of Nepali politics now on.

Significantly, the Maoist drive for a paradigm shift in bilateral ties found Indian echoes at the Patna conference. Retired diplomat and former Indian ambassador to Nepal Deb Mukharji said: “The state-to-state relationship between the two countries should be formal and not necessarily formalised, and the new dispensation in Kathmandu gives us the opening for making such a change because of the lack of past association.”

Mukharji explained his position to The Telegraph later thus: “There are several levels and layers to the India-Nepal relationship, and obviously because of our deep links, there will be personal and sentimental aspects to it. But state-to-state relations need to be more formal and less personal and personalised. That has not been the case all these years.”

Another aspect of the official relationship, he said, that both New Delhi and Kathmandu had ignored consistently was the impact of the ties on the people of the two countries. “The people have to be taken into account, and I think we are going to see that happen,” Mukharji said.

According to him, the healthy thing about the Patna conference was that a “certain amount of bile” came out of the Nepali side. “You may call it small country syndrome, but it was good for the bile to come out rather than be kept pent up, now that issues are out in the open for discussion, as they should be.”

Asked about the new Maoist demand to scrap the 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty, Mukharji said: “There’s nothing new in that. This demand has been raised several times in the past and we have said, fair enough, renegotiate or restructure. In fact, Clause 10 of the treaty clearly says it can be abrogated by either side on a year’s notice. And I remember that during the foreign secretary-level talks in 2001, we had reminded the Nepali delegation of the clause and said, why don’t you do it? We should be prepared to discuss all options.”