President Pranab Mukherjee’s recent visit to Nepal and think-tank India Foundation’s outreach have served as force multipliers towards creating an environment for greater India-Nepal friendship and cooperation
by Ashok K Mehta
( November 9, 2016, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) Never in the history of India-Nepal relations have ties soured and sweetened so quickly as this year, following the rise and fall of the pro-China KP Oli-led Cumminist Party of India (Unified Marxist-Leninist) coalition Government and the re-rise of the converted, no-longer-anti-India Maoist supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ as Prime Minister a second time. This healing touch was overdue after India’s desire for an inclusive Constitution was managed with a heavy hand last year. President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit last week — 18 years after President KR Narayanan went last and five months after President Bidhya Devi Bhandari cancelled her scheduled trip to New Delhi after allegations that India was trying to destabilise the Oli Government — was structured carefully to erase the recent bitterness of a grumpy phase in bilateral relations.
This despite the foundation for the reset laid by Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he arrived in Kathmandu in 2014 for a prime ministerial visit 17 years after Prime Minister Inder Gujral, and literally conquered the hearts and minds of all Nepalese. Soon New Delhi blew it up.
To recalibrate relations, President Mukherjee’s visit was buttressed by an India-Nepal workshop organised by the New Delhi based BJP-leaning India Foundation, which excels in connecting political leaders of the neighbourhood and boosting diplomacy. It’s choice of Nepalese participants weighed more on their being India-friendly rather than also accommodating some dissenting voices for a more realistic appraisal of the state of relations. While Foreign Minister Prakash Mahat told Indian journalists that constitutional amendments to meet aspirations of the Madhesis were purely an internal matter, other Nepalese leaders stressed that India must eschew meddling in Nepal’s internal affairs.
Ironically, Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar, who was the one to personally deliver the demarche on rectifying the Constitution, elaborated the contents of President Mukherjee’s banquet speech: ‘Look at India’s experience. If there is something to be drawn to carry all people along, Nepal can use it for its Constitution-writing process’.
The Nepalese are upset that, when Kathmandu promulgated its Constitution last September, New Delhi merely ‘noted’ the event whereas other countries showered praise and commendation. President Mukherjee is reported to have either thanked or congratulated (as differently quoted by the media) President Bhandari for promulgating Nepal’s new Constitution. There was broad political consensus on Mukherjee’s visit and a one-day holiday was declared, prompting Left-wing leaders to demand a holiday during the future visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping, which was cancelled after the Oli Government was brought down. The Chinese media blamed India for trying to turn the tables against China and lambasted Beijing’s former acolyte Prachanda for ‘tricking China and putting bilateral ties on the back burner at the behest of India.
Global Times said that China felt ‘tricked’ that Nepal got close to Beijing to relieve pressure from India and (KP Oli) signed a number of crucial agreements with Beijing to help it get rid of its reliance on New Delhi, but later ‘put ties on the back-burner when pressure from India was relaxed’.
Following this misunderstanding, Prachanda reverting to the principle of equidistance between India and China, sent two emissaries to these countries. While the path to New Delhi has been cleared of some of the rubble left by the economic blockade, the route to Beijing is being reset. Prachanda’s own visit to China has not been announced, as for the first time in recent history, Beijing has been directly involved in regime change in Nepal. It seeks parity with India in every interpretation of the term.
President Mukherjee paid an unprecedented visit to the tourist town of Pokhara and met Indian Army Gorkha pensioners who comprise the single biggest and most durable pro-India constituency in Nepal. Left-wing anti-India elements demolished a welcome arch but did not disrupt the President’s address to ex-servicemen as they had threatened to. Anti-India sentiment is palpable in many parts of Nepal. There were fears of black flag protests during the visit as well as a terrorist threat.
Not surprisingly, the scourge of terrorism got a prominent mention in the President’s banquet speech in Kathmandu. The Nepali Army and police were on high alert with shoot-at-sight orders and helicopters on aerial patrol along all routes of President Mukherjee’s surface travel.
For the first time since the 2008 election, a new political alignment deemed as India-friendly, is evolving. Still, accommodating India’s core interests will be consistent with and sometimes subordinate to Nepal’s national interest. This is the ethos of the new brand of political leadership. It wants Indian interference to stop and Nepal to be allowed its independent sovereign space. The ruling coalition consists of Prachanda Maoists (with two breakaway groups at large) and Sher Bahadur Deuba-led Nepali Congress, with Madhesi parties supporting the regime from outside. The arrangement is likely to last till January 2018, when the second Constituent Assembly ends and elections to the first post-Constitution Parliament are held.
Prachanda’s nine-month term ends in five months, during which he is required to hold local body, municipal and district committee elections. Talks with Madhesis and Janjatis have started over resolving residual constitutional issues like identity, citizenship, inclusiveness and demarcation of provinces. Sher Bahadur Deuba, who will likely begin his fourth innings as Prime Minister in May next year unless there is an insider coup, was being made much of last Monday by the peripatetic India Foundation at its annual Goa conclave.
The longevity of Prachanda-Deuba alliance with the Madhesis on board is essential for a free and fair parliamentary election in 2018. Supported by China, the KP Oli-led Opposition alliance is expected to capitalise on its anti-India-cum- nationalism campaign at the hustings, denting the fortunes of the ruling Left-Right democratic grouping.
A hung Parliament will hold Nepal hostage to continued political instability unless the people of Nepal — assisted in creative ways by the Government of India — decide to break the decade-long logjam of an unclear verdict. This is an opportunity for New Delhi to regain lost ground while unambiguously signalling to Kathmandu that Nepal’s primary interests will be on par with India’s concerns. The presidential visit and India Foundation’s outreach have served as force multipliers towards fulfilling this objective. The Modi mantra is also needed.
(The writer is a retired Lt General of the Indian Army and strategic affairs analyst)