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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

India’s strategic role in Nepal

Madhav Kumar Nepal, when general secretary of the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) was invited to Delhi in 2007 by the Ministry of External Affairs as part of its outreach diplomacy. He told a Delhi-based newspaper that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had counselled strengthening unity among democratic forces, adding “you have the Maoists on board now, that’s a big advantage”. Mr Nepal, back as Prime Minister, will ask Mr Singh to help get the Maoists to join his Government.

India’s backing for his Government is crucial to its strategy of buying time to tame the Maoists as it made a colossal error of judgement in writing off the Maoists in the elections to the Constituent Assembly in which they won more seats than the Nepali Congress and CPN(UML) put together. Worse, National Security Adviser MK Narayanan said that India was “used to working with the Nepali Congress”. Their electoral performance was the decisive turning point in the peace process.

Emboldened by their success and confident of leading the Government till the new Constitution was drafted, the Maoists bungled when their charismatic leader, Mr Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known as Prachanda, egged on by party hardliners, dismissed the Chief of Army Staff, Gen Rukmangad Katwal, who was seen to be blocking the Maoist grand plan of dominating all state institutions, including the Army, by resisting the integration of Maoist combatants with the forces, the only organisation not under its domination. President Ram Baran Yadav restoring the COAS was seen by the Maoists as violation of civilian supremacy and reason for Prachanda to resign. In their book, civilian supremacy is tight party control of the Army, the power flowing from the barrel of the gun.

Prachanda’s plans for a ‘new’ Nepal and a socioeconomic revolution went awry when the Maoists crossed the ‘Lakshman Rekha’. How can they change ‘old’ Nepal into ‘new’ Nepal without first changing themselves, is the common refrain. Sacking Gen Katwal, a monumental miscalculation which cost them the Government, was the second turning point of the peace process, ending the period of consensus. Maoist relations with other political parties, the Army and India are the worst ever.

Shock and insecurity at losing power in the name of civilian supremacy has spilled on to the streets and in the Constituent Assembly. Prachanda has vowed that the Maoists will soon return to lead a new national unity Government. It is against this skewed balance of power where the Maoists, the single largest party, are on the streets instead of in the House, that Mr Nepal is in Delhi.

Mr Nepal’s Government requires India’s demonstrable support for its legitimacy and restoring the peace process. In his book, Raj Lives On — India in Nepal, Sanjay Upadhyaya has observed that no one can rule in Nepal without India’s nod and recognising its legitimate security interests. The Maoists apparently don’t think so. They are advocating ‘Looking Beyond India’, accommodating a more assertive China to balance India. Chinese political, military, economic and diplomatic activities and people-to-people contact in Nepal have increased dramatically during the Maoist interregnum.

Through one of their key military leaders, Barsaman Pun (Ananta), the Maoists have indicated that the present standoff can be resolved only on their terms. He says Mr Yadav’s action restoring the sacked Chief of Army Staff is only part of the problem. The Pun panacea prescribes correction of the President’s action through a debate in the House, a new comprehensive peace agreement followed by a Maoist-led national Government.

The longevity of the Nepal Government is irrelevant to the peace process unless there is improvement in the law and order situation, progress in drafting the Constitution and integrating the armies. The new Government has to demonstrate it can govern better than the inexperienced guerrillas-turned-politicians. The Army Integration Special Committee is stuck over the question of its chairmanship — Prachanda, Maoists say, was replaced by Mr Nepal without consulting them. Constitution-drafting is marking time.

The Maoists are sulking and still cannot be trusted over their commitment to rule of law, multi-party democracy and human rights — in short, they have failed to transform from a guerrilla force into a political outfit. They remain on the US Terrorist Exclusion List and according to former US Ambassador Nancy Powell, the Young Communist League has obstructed Constitution-writing. India, the architect of the historic 2005 Delhi Accord which axed monarchy, is following the US way: Judge the Maoists by their deeds and not words.

Maoist-India relations have plummeted with Prachanda accusing India of installing a puppet regime, even plotting with the US to attack China. High-decibel anti-India sentiment draped in nationalism is being whipped up which is nothing new for Delhi.

Charges of Indian interference and anti-Indianism have to be managed, sometimes ignored.

Clearly, things will get worse before they get better. Mr Nepal cannot perform effectively without the Maoists on board the peace process which is linked with the United Nations Mission in Nepal on its fourth extension, overseeing the integration of armies. India has lost ground in Nepal and Sri Lanka by neglect of the neighbourhood. Given Nepal’s location, it is crucial to the security of the strategic Indo-Gangetic plains. Equally, reaching out to the Maoists and reducing the trust deficit are pivotal.

While Mr Nepal can be lavished with all the political confidence, economic goodies and assurances of cooperation, these will not operationalise the peace process. Nepalis feel India has a moral duty to break the political impasse. The Maoists require to be placated over civilian supremacy — though CPN(UML) leader KP Oli says their civilian supremacy is with YCL — integration, including restoring Prachanda’s chairmanship of AISC, and other inducements. New red lines have to be drawn over Chinese penetration into Nepal and activities of the YCL as part of a new Delhi Accord.

The Maoists have outlined two options: A Prachanda-led Government or revolt, and have discounted a third option. But there is one: Maoists joining the current Government. This requires to be worked out.

A high-level India-Maoist back-channel dialogue addressing issues holding up the peace process is urgently needed. Another mechanism is required to fix a disturbed Madhes which has around 109 armed groups, many of which simply comprise criminals. Mr Nepal must go back reassured that India has Nepal’s core interests at heart while facilitating a restart of the peace process.

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