On the India hand in Nepal

In an interview with this writer for The Hindu newspaper last week, Maoist chairman Prachanda explained the sudden decision to send the Nepal Army to the cantonments, revealed the possible meeting points on constitutional issues, said that he would have no objection to an NC-led government promulgating the constitution, and declared his personal ambition of wanting “5-10 years” to “implement his vision”. But the bit that has drawn the most attention here in Kathmandu is his public acknowledgment of India’s role in Nepal’s political transformation—from the 12-point agreement, to the CA elections, to the declaration of republic and the progress in the peace process.

Expectedly, ultra-nationalist websites have latched onto this as proof of Prachanda’s “subservience”; right wing stalwarts have the “We told you so” smug look about how they were right all along that this was an external plot. In a different context, there has also been commentary projecting India’s current phase of engagement with the Maoist as somewhat opposed to the Nepali people’s aspirations for peace and democracy.

It would be useful to look at the several issues enmeshed here separately, based on the evidence currently available.

The tendency either to extol or adopt an outright hostile position against India comes from the same, somewhat flawed, premise—that New Delhi is the sole driver of our domestic politics. A more nuanced and accurate position is that given our history, geography, structural economic dependence, and links each political grouping has with diverse political schools of thought back in India, the Indian establishment is a major actor in Nepali politics. India’s role far exceeds what should be an engagement of one country in the domestic politics of the other—bringing home the point that we remain a partly sovereign state. Depending on the balance of power in Delhi, the individuals at the helm, and the way it sees its national interests vis a vis Nepal and which political alignment is best for its overall aims, India adopts different policy lines at different junctures.

But there are two crucial caveats.

Delhi’s ability to influence outcomes is neither absolute, nor does any decision taken exist in a vacuum. For a long time, India hoped that the palace and parties would work together against the Maoists. But that did not happen, forcing India to engage with the Maoists and support the 12-point agreement. It welcomed the first royal proclamation—when the Nepali street rejected it, Delhi had to backtrack and give up the “twin pillar” policy. It would have preferred Maoists to come a distant third in the CA elections, but had to reconcile itself to a victory for the former rebels. It thought that it could keep the Madhav Nepal government afloat, isolate the Maoists and thus force it to deliver on the peace process. While the line may have helped in forcing the Maoists to recognise the limits of their power, India did not succeed in bulldozing the Maoists to accept integration in a politically unfavourable setting. India did its best to block a Maoist-UML alliance, yet Jhalanath Khanal came to power.

All these episodes reveal the overwhelming role of domestic Nepali political dynamics in shaping events.

At times, India engineers political developments—but on many occasions, Delhi has to catch up with already unfolding events.

Second, all Nepali actors seek to influence India in order to force a policy shift in a manner that would benefit them. When the royal regime was in place, everyone was lobbying in Delhi. The king’s cronies wanted India to support him; parties and Maoists wanted India to dump the palace. Post CA elections, GPK sent loyalists to lobby for Indian support to become president. During the Katawal episode, Prachanda tried hard to dilute Indian opposition by calling up Shyam Saran and even asking for a special envoy to come. Through the Madhav Nepal term, he had his advisers aimed to keep Indian support intact; Maoists hoped to change the Indian policy line by challenging it either directly, or breaking the anti Maoist alliance so as to force India to cope with a new political reality. The latter happened with Khanal’s elevation.

The point is that in a polity that is not completely autonomous, everyone is playing the same game. The relevant question is if Indian support is being sought for objectives that are in line with democratic aspirations of the people, and would aid the political process in these times of transition.

This gets us to India’s current policy line.

The Baburam Bhattarai government was not created by India. And it is most certainly not a technocratic arrangement, but a political alliance. For a long time, there was discontent building up among Madhesi MPs about NC and UML’s perceived anti-Madhes stance. Not only could Madhesi parties get Maoists to agree on issues important to them (inclusion in NA, federalism, Madhes province etc), Madhesi leaders realised that this was the best moment for them to get maximum share in Singha Durbar. As political animals, it was not hard for them see that an alliance with NC and UML would mean fewer ministries. This is a legitimate power calculation.

If the entire Indian establishment—with all its might—had pressured the Madhesi parties not to support the Maoists, the government may not have been formed. But this does not mean that there was active support for this alliance—hard as it may be for those who see Madhesi parties as mere Indian pawns to believe that they can have some agency. President Ram Baran Yadav (flouting all constitutional norms), NC leaders, and others had lobbied hard with a senior Indian minister to win support for Ram Chandra Poudel. Madhesi leaders confided then that there was in fact pressure by sections in India not to support Dr Bhattarai. But because they were aware of a slight rift within the Delhi establishment, and because the political logic and benefit of allying with the Maoists outweighed the costs, the Morcha went with the Maoists.

Since then, it is true that India has provided steadfast support to the present government. And anyone who wishes to see the peace process over, the constitution written and the political achievements institutionalised must admit that this has been the right call. The consistent progress in the peace process—seven-point deal, regrouping, and sending those who opted for retirement, closing cantonments, and sending the NA into cantonments—was possible only because the Maoists were leading the government. Imagine if there is so much discontent within the party and PLA when their own government is taking the decisions, what would have happened if they were in opposition?

Besides the pragmatic calculation, supporting the Maoist-led government was also the right thing to do democratically. We may have forgotten, but the Maoists did get the mandate in the CA elections. This is why Maoists should also get to lead the next national unity government. To wish that India should destabilise the present government, or that Maoists need to be treated as political untouchables, is destructive.

At a time of a remarkable breakthrough in the peace process, and when a federal democratic republican constitution is within grasp, let us applaud the Nepali political forces for taking forward the process, and regional actors for playing a supportive role. Those who wish more destruction on this society can remain bitter.

(First published in eKantipur.)

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