Originally Published 2010-08-11 00:00:00 Published on Aug 11, 2010
The political mess in Nepal presents a very difficult challenge for India. Nepal is geo-politically too sensitive for India to detach itself from developments there. We have to be ever watchful of the inroads China makes.
Strike  The  Right  Balance  On  Nepal
The political mess in Nepal presents a very difficult challenge for India. Nepal is geo-politically too sensitive for India to detach itself from developments there. We have to be ever watchful of the inroads China makes. As a country wedged between India and Tibet, Nepal has traditionally played the Chinese card against us. No matter which government is in power there, to a lesser or greater degree our China problem with Nepal will remain. Its governments will always want to use China to counter the perceived threat of Indian hegemony, but they would also feel obliged to be responsive to China's own political, economic and security demands as a contiguous country controlling a restive Tibet.

Our predicament in Nepal is that we have to respect its sovereignty and yet expect its exercise to be in consonance with India's core interests. The 1950 Treaty, the reality of the open border, the historical, cultural, linguistic and religious ties between the two countries underpin our expectations. Nepal, of course, has its own nationalistic sensitivities, elements there chafe at the abridgement of sovereignty that the 1950 Treaty represents for them, and other grouses related to transit etc are nourished. India is also a convenient political bugbear domestically for Nepalese parties to exploit and shape sections of public opinion against it, irrespective of our deeds or misdeeds. The Palace, in particular, was adept at it and so have been the Maoists. This has prevented, over the years, the establishment of a relationship of trust and mutual confidence, with the result that the image of India in Nepal is more or less congealed as an interfering, arrogant neighbour and that of Nepal in India as a prickly, vexatious country that is ready to cut its nose to spite India's face. Nepal has, for example, denied itself critical developmental revenue and India much needed energy and flood control benefits by resisting water resources cooperation. Such unwillingness to exploit complementarities and create interdependence, set aside past grievances and cease looking at India as a self-seeking and inconsiderate partner, reflects an abnormally negative state of mind, even after allowing for the insecurities of a smaller country neighbouring a vastly bigger one.

We have essentially relied on Nepal's good sense not to exceed certain limits in opening doors to China, and cross India's threshold of tolerance. We have not been able to impose any clear redlines for this as such an exercise is diplomatically very delicate. It carries the danger of legitimizing a range of activities that may be short of the redlines but nonetheless perturbing from the long term security point of view, besides permitting China to extend its sphere of influence south of the Himalayas more freely. In the 80's, when Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister, the Palace challenged India on defence issues and he retaliated by putting a transit squeeze on the land-locked Himalayan kingdom. But, in general, Nepal has been provocatively testing our China-related sensitivities and we have resorted to fire-fighting to counter its moves, without being able to reach a clear understanding on the self-restraint Nepal should voluntarily practice in its dealings with China out of a recognition of the particular nature and the depth of its ties with India.

This would explain why any Maoist take over of Nepal would worry us. The Maoists have constituted the most hostile force in Nepal toward India, backed in the past by the Palace to counter the Nepali Congress seen as pro-India. Yet, we played a role in bringing this force into the mainstream of Nepalese politics- and hence its power structures- after years of internal conflict had locked the government and the insurgents into a stalemate and forced the search for a solution through politics and not military means. We were realistic in recognizing the reality of the ground support that the Maoist forces had in the caste ridden, ethnically divided and impoverished country so dependent on aid hand-outs for its neglected agenda of development, whatever our aversion for their ideology and whatever our concerns about the violent challenge from similar forces within our country. Perhaps, like the mainstream political parties we also judged that the Maoists would perform relatively poorly in the elections and therefore believed that the undeniable political victory in bringing a revolutionary force within the framework of democratic politics would not exact too high a price in changing the power balance in the country. In the event, the Maoists emerged as the largest political force in the country, shaking in its wake the caste, ethnic and Terai-hill areas equations, and this the political system as a whole has not been able to digest, leading to the present crisis in constitution making and government formation.

India's quandary remains. The continuing political disarray in Nepal damages our leadership role in South Asia as it exposes an inability to manage and stabilize our neighbourhood with the resources at our disposal. We cannot afford to be seen as helpless or irrelevant as that would confirm to unfriendly elements that we lack the political will to assert ourselves and they might then be more encouraged to add to our problems in the future. Yet, the complexity of the internal political blockage in Nepal is such that solutions are not easy. Federalism, the aspirations of the Terains, uncertainty about the political intentions of the Maoists- to which the questions of integration of the Maoist cadres into the security forces and the disbanding of its armed wings are connected- are big issues. The abolition of the monarchy despite past assumptions that the institution embodied Nepal's identity and national unity, the social churning caused by the empowerment of the lower castes, women and the Terai population, the unleashing of democratic urges in a hitherto stratified and economically backward society, have created a political and social dynamic which cannot be externally handled. Any intrusive policy, even if motivated by helpful intentions, can lay us open to accusations of interference and big brotherly meddling. How to find the right balance between engagement and non-intervention is a challenging task.

It can be argued that having brokered the 12-point agreement in 2006 and promoted the peace process in Nepal leading to mainstreaming the Maoists and the demonstration of their public backing through fair elections, we should be ready and available to assist in taking the process forward to fruition, while remaining politically neutral and respectful of popular feelings. The Maoists have to be accommodated in measure of their popular support, retained within the democratic fold but not allowed to use the instrument of militancy at their command to brow beat other political forces. Even in a troubling scenario of a Maoist preponderance in Nepal and any irresponsible India policy they may pursue, we have the means to contain the challenge, remembering that merely their overtures to China will not aggravate the China problem for us there. China has to want this, and it will exploit the opportunity only if it intends to step up its pressure on India in South Asia beyond the already deadly instrumentalization of Pakistan against us. In that case our gloves in Nepal will have to come off.

The writer is a former Foreign Secretary
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