Nepal and India agonize over China
KATHMANDU - Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt was the place where Nepal's Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal first met his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, on the sidelines of a summit of non-aligned nations in mid-July.
From this standpoint, his first official visit to India last week appeared as a follow-up for a review of bilateral relations which remained at a low ebb when Maoist leader Prachanda headed Nepal's coalition government.
Prachanda's assertive posture, witnessed through his decision, exactly a year ago, to make China - instead of India - his first destination abroad made New Delhi suspicious about the Maoist leadership. The ensuing uneasiness continued until he resigned
on May 4 amid a controversy Prachanda thought was ignited by India, although he refrained from naming that country.
Mr Nepal succeeded him on May 25.
Whether his assurances to the Indians for correcting the perceived tilt towards China did have the intended impact remains a matter of conjecture, but Mr Nepal told the national media, on his return on Saturday, that his goodwill visit to India was "highly successful despite speculation ..."
Officials issued a 34-point joint press statement at the end of Mr Nepal's four-day sojourn in India, containing pledges for money to be spent on development projects, especially in the southern flatland called Terai.
But Prachanda and others in his Maoist party are not impressed. He said Mr Nepal's initiative as an exercise in futility, because the foreign minister did not join the entourage and because Mr Nepal - unlike him - was not elected by the people. Prachanda said Mr Nepal looked like a puppet and that the media in the host country had virtually ignored the presence there of the prime minister of a neighboring country.
Foreign Minister Sujata Koirala, daughter of Nepali Congress president and former prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala, had created a scene by dropping out of the entourage at the 11th hour, expressing her anger, in a seemingly childish manner, against Mr Nepal for not having promoted her to the post of deputy prime minister.
Officials of her ministry were left embarrassed in New Delhi, where they had scheduled meetings for her with several leaders, including the external affairs minister. Back in Kathmandu, Koirala explained to the Nepali Congress executive that she could not accompany Mr Nepal because of indisposition at the time of departure.
On the question of legitimacy, although Mr Nepal was not elected in the polls held in April 2008, he later became a nominated member of the 601-strong Constituent Assembly. A majority of the house, representing 22 political parties, then elected him to the post he presently occupies. Moreover, insist Mr Nepal's supporters, he did not push Prachanda out of power; the charismatic Maoist leader himself announced his resignation. Since the prime minister's chair fell vacant, non-Maoist members in the assembly made Mr Nepal an alternative leader. Nepali Congress is the main coalition partner.
The Indian media, both print and electronic, did not give extensive coverage to Mr Nepal's activities in New Delhi, and subsequently in Mumbai. But some of the editors who accompanied the prime minister, together with ministers and senior officials, have contended that the visit coincided with the big-news event of the presidential elections in neighboring Afghanistan.
Another major issue that dominated headlines at the time was the expulsion of a prominent Hindu nationalist leader, Jaswant Singh, from the Bharatiya Janata Party for having written a book that purportedly praised Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the creator of Pakistan. (See Raw Indian nerves exposed and Opposition party adds to its disarray , Asia Times Online, August 27).
On the day of Mr Nepal's arrival in New Delhi, The Hindu newspaper published a prepared interview which contained his remarks on the importance of closer relations with India, rather than with China.
Was then the whole exercise a sheer waste of time and resources? It was not, said Chakra Bastola, a senior member of the Nepali Congress - the largest among the incumbent coalition partners. "[Even] if the visit was not especially significant, it would be unfair to dub it as a failure," Bastola, a former foreign minister, told Asia Times Online.
He subscribed to a prevalent view that Mr Nepal's efforts needed to be positively evaluated in the context of the extraordinary circumstances that have beset the country.
At the substantive level, while Mr Nepal can take satisfaction for being able to secure Indian assistance for a couple of development projects, the joint statement failed to show that the prime minister made sincere efforts to get New Delhi's responses to more pressing issues. These include the inundation of large tracts of farmland due to the construction of dams and embankments by the Indians along the border, the displacement of thousands of people from border villages because of continuous harassment from Indian security personnel deployed to watch movements across the porous border that Nepal and India share, and cases of encroachment into Nepali territory in more than 60 places on the 1,800-plus kilometer-long frontier.
Dozens of armed groups, with their bases in the territories of the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, have been creating havoc, leading to surging numbers of killings, abductions and extortions.
Similarly, the trade deficit is growing as India continues to place non-tariff barriers on imports from Nepal. New Delhi has also been unhelpful over the issue of 100,000 Bhutanese refugees in Nepal waiting to be repatriated.
On a broader scale, Nepal remains unstable, even though the decade-long armed insurgency by the Maoists officially ended in 2006. The absence of war, analysts contend, does not imply peace.
The presence of the United Nations through a special mission is a constant reminder of the fact that Nepal is a trouble-torn country. In the words of Andrew Hall, the British ambassador in Kathmandu, "Nepal is a fragile state ... [and] fragility matters because it risks spreading instability to a region of critical importance to United Kingdom interests."
Other European countries hold similar opinions. Britain, together with other member-states of the UN Security Council, have instructed their Kathmandu-based envoys to regularly monitor events and trends in Nepal.
In a statement on Wednesday, the Carter Center - run by former US president Jimmy Carter - expressed concern over the political stalemate in Nepal. "Reminiscent of the 1990s, political leaders in Kathmandu are focused on zero-sum power politics at the expense of constitution-drafting, the peace process and the provision of basic government services."
The three-year peace process has yet to reach its logical conclusion; about 20,000 former Maoist combatants have to be rehabilitated and a new constitution has to be written - to replace the existing interim one - for what is to be the Federal Republic of Nepal, by May 2010.
Growing lawlessness across the country has become a formidable challenge. Clashes between the youth wings of the main political parties invite troubles that could undermine the ethnic harmony the country has maintained thus far.
"Nepal's peace process is in danger of collapse," reads the first sentence of a new report issued by an international organization dedicated to preventing conflict worldwide. The publication of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, released less than a week before Mr Nepal flew to New Delhi, said the Maoists faced a mess largely of their own making, even as Nepal's national army began to adopt an assertive political role.
In the group's view, behind much of the recent instability lies an Indian change of course. The report categorically alluded to "naked interventions" on the political front which will eventually undermine India's own long-term interests. The group also took note of the fact that India's policies on Nepal were framed primarily by civil servants and mostly without political discussion at appropriate forums, such as parliament. To make matters worse, implementation of even such policies was delegated to "covert intelligence operatives".
The example of Sri Lanka often finds mention in public discourses in Nepal. References are made to how India's attempt to "micro-manage" that country's affairs ended in a fiasco, after a protracted bloody war that claimed thousands of lives.
New Delhi does not appear willing to learn the lessons of Sri Lanka, or else it would not continue to interfere in Nepal. That India has not stopped taking a political interest in Nepal's politics was evident in a long interview its ambassador, Rakesh Sood, gave to The Kathmandu Post on June 15. "We would like to have good relations with all the political parties here," Sood was quoted as saying. As is the practice, an envoy of a foreign country maintains formal relations only with the government of the host country, not with individual political parties of that country. This approach is bound to increase anti-Indian feeling in the neighborhood, as is happening in Nepal.
The Crisis Group report also pointed to India's growing obsession with the UN's role in Nepal. "India does not want extended Security Council attention on its backyard," said the report, citing cases where New Delhi not only sniped from the sidelines but also stirred up public controversy. Interestingly, the group's latest recommendations included a Security Council visit to Nepal to understand the complex situation. This idea was initially floated by Russia, which is one of the five permanent (veto-wielding) members of the Security Council, along with Britain, China, France and the US.
China is another issue for India. One of the questions the visiting Nepali prime minister faced during a media interaction in New Delhi related to Nepal's alleged temptation to use the "China card" against India. Mr Nepal assured his audience by saying that his country understood the security concerns of India. In reality, Nepal needs to address the concerns of China as well, such as "Free Tibet" campaigners who regularly obtain support from Tibetans living in exile in Dharmashala, India.
This raises the issue of whether the Chinese threat the Indians consistently refer to is real. While remaining watchful about its security interests, China has not interfered in Nepal's domestic politics. Studies like the one conducted by the Crisis Group underline the Indian tendency to justify their meddlesome measures on the basis of a threat perception from China.
One striking example is the the Prachanda-led government's decision to sack the army chief, General Rookmangud Katawal. New Delhi claimed the decision, taken in early May, was made on the promptings of Beijing. "There is, however, no evidence that China incited the Maoists to sack the chief of the army staff," the Crisis Group said.
It is also true that since most of the Maoist leaders took shelter in India for many years, Beijing has not yet accepted them as reliable comrades. "To use them once in a while is one thing, but to rely on them as a permanent political force is quite another matter," said Congress leader Bastola, who was involved in the early phase of negotiations with Maoist leaders, conducted at an undisclosed location in New Delhi.
If China is at all increasing its presence and interest in Nepal, it is, ironically, facilitated by India. India's policy of shifting its focus from the hills to the flatland of the Terai region is obviously creating a vacuum in the mountains, thereby leaving space for China to fill. In Bastola's opinion, the Indians are unnecessarily putting blame on others for their own flawed policies and faulty designs.
Dhruba Adhikary is a Kathmandu-based journalist.