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July 4, 2009

Return of the meddler

The change in government in Kathmandu has turned public opinion against India

NEPAL, WITH a population of almost 30 million, may be a medium-sized country. But its location between the two colossi of India and China leads some of its inhabitants to believe that they live in a tiny country, whose internal politics is but a reflection of larger geopolitical machinations undertaken by their larger neighbours. “Everything that happens in Nepali politics happens according to what Indians want”—this oft repeated phrase, hyperbolic as it may be, sums up the resignation and frustration towards India and towards Nepal’s own inept politicians who seem perennially beholden to the external power down south.

And of course India has always played an extraordinarily influential role in Nepal’s politics. It helped negotiate the democratic transitions of 1950 and 1990, and facilitated the alliance between the Maoists and the traditional parliamentary parties in 2005. It has kept close tabs on the Nepal situation since then, has stepped in as arbiter and attempted to influence outcomes during almost every period of crisis during the peace process.

Sections that have historically been close to the monarchy and view the institution as the sole defender of Nepali nationalism continue to maintain that the alliance against the King would not have formed if not for Indian interference; that India’s intention in supporting the anti-King alliance was to foment instability so as to extend its influence over Nepal. This, however, is the view of a small minority.

Broadly, there has been less resentment towards India’s hand in Nepal’s affairs over the past three years than there was in the 1990s. Then, it was perceived, that all of India’s efforts were geared towards fragmenting political forces, cultivating sections friendly to it and extracting concessions—on river sharing agreements or hydropower projects, for example—to the benefit of India and the detriment of Nepal. After the beginning of the peace process, however, until perhaps to the holding of the Constituent Assembly (CA) elections in April 2008, India’s role in Nepal has been perceived by the political class and most sections of the public as largely positive. For once, it was thought, India was putting aside its self-interest and contributing to a process that was to the benefit of the Nepali population.

There were occasions during the process when India visibly appeared to coerce political actors into following a particular direction. Some resentment arose during such occasions, but it was muted. For, after all, even when the Indian establishment extended its might, it often did so for the benefit of the peace process. In early 2008, for example, a number of Madhesi parties were holding violent protests in the Terai, threatening to boycott the CA elections scheduled for April if their demands were not met. The Indian ambassador in Kathmandu, in a dramatic turn of events that received wide coverage in the Nepali media, summoned these leaders to Kathmandu and forced them to reach an agreement with the major political parties. Without this intervention, the elections would not have been held on schedule.

This state of affairs began to change after the results of the CA elections were revealed. India has always been somewhat antagonistic towards the Maoists and had calculated that they would perform dismally in the elections. This, it was thought, would enable the Nepali Congress and other traditional parliamentary parties to negotiate with the Maoists from a position of strength, and possibly even renege on some of the agreements reached with them earlier. It was this calculation that led the Indian establishment to totally ignore crucial areas of the peace process – such as the integration and rehabilitation of Maoist combatants – and only focus on pushing the parties to hold elections. This was a strategy widely criticised by some Western diplomatic missions and the United Nations Mission to Nepal (UNMIN), who maintained that much attention had to be paid to the implementation of the peace agreements if trust was to be built and long-term stability gained. But they lacked India’s leverage and knowledge of Nepal, and it was the Indian view that prevailed.

The strong performance of the Maoists in the elections and the dismal showing of parties backed by India – the Nepali Congress, the CPN-UML and the Tarai Madhes Loktantrik Party (TMLP)—led to a loss of face for the Indian foreign ministry and embassy officials responsible for Nepal policy. They had displayed supreme confidence, even hubris, in their strategy and had scoffed at the “white liberals” who, they felt, were guided more by idealism than rationality. But the Maoists’ victory gave them more leverage over the other political parties, and it suddenly appeared that it would have been in India’s (and the traditional political parties’) advantage to have resolved outstanding issues of the peace process before the election after all. Among diplomatic circles in Nepal, accustomed to deferring to India as the country with the most knowledge and leverage, it appeared that the emperor had no clothes after all.

For the Indian establishment, the Maoists’ strong performance in the elections raised the immediate problem of having to revise its strategy vis-à-vis Nepal. New Delhi’s antagonism towards the Maoists was well known, and they had not countenanced the possibility of having to deal with a Maoist-led government. Nevertheless, Indian officials initially put on a brave face, stating that they were willing to work with any government in Nepal, and even granting Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda” great hospitality during his first official visit to India as prime minister.

Over subsequent months, however, India’s relationship with the Maoists soured. The Maoists, it was felt, were keener on using their hold over the state to expand their influence and marginalise the other political parties. Their actions and words raised doubts about their commitment to multi-party democracy. And, most importantly, they appeared to be encouraging Chinese penetration into Nepal’s internal affairs. So when most of Nepal’s non-Maoist political forces rallied together to oppose the Maoist attempt to sack the Army chief in April, citing that this was an attempt by the party to undermine the integrity of the institution and take it over, India too took a vehemently anti-Maoist stand.

The Indian establishment played a major role in the collapse of the Maoist-led government. It was largely due to pressure from India that two parties in the governing coalition—the CPN-UML and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF)—withdrew support to the Maoists. India was also instrumental in bringing together an array of 22 parties led by the CPN-UML to lead the new government. This is, in the words of an Indian diplomat, “a course correction.” The Maoists are to be marginalised from the affairs of the state until they clearly demonstrate that they are committed to competitive politics and to maintaining Indian national security interests in Nepal.

The Maoists, meanwhile, have raised a hue and a cry against India’s “interference”; they have labelled the current government an “Indian puppet” and called on the population to participate in a mass movement against it. And although there is wide recognition that the Maoists are largely to blame for the collapse of the government, the highly visible Indian role in this affair as revealed by the media, has been jarring. India’s actions have once again raised resentment among the public. The new government’s legitimacy has been undermined in the popular eye because of its perceived dependence on India. The Indian establishment’s intervention in Nepal’s politics, it is felt, strongly resembles its efforts in the 1990s. India, once again appears to a broad section of the Nepali public as unable to tolerate a government that does not play along with it, and willing to undermine such political forces through any means necessary to achieve their ends.


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