Nepal: Breaking the impasse
India’s Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao received a lukewarm response on her two day visit to Nepal on Sept. 15-16. She met the very same officials whom she met in New Delhi about a month ago. In addition she met President Ram Baran Yadav and Chief of the Army Staff Chhatraman Singh Gurung. The missing link was the Maoist leader Prachanda who conspicuously left for Hong Kong clearly to avoid a meeting.
So what was the reason behind Foreign Secretary Rao’s rapid reciprocal visit to Kathmandu to re-announce the package announced in Delhi only about a month ago?
Nothing has changed since the visit of Nepal’s prime minister to Delhi. The stalemate and its consequences are still firmly in place: political polarisation deepens; the peace process continues to run dangerously off course; splits in the larger parties are ever more evident; the country is in ever deeper chaos and the security situation continues to deteriorate. Most seriously there are still two highly politicised armies in the country, not to mention the dangerous proliferation of ever more armed groups.
Most speculate that Rao’s mission was to buttress Madhav Nepal. But Indian influence has its limits and the visit is unlikely to do much more than delay the inevitable end of this lame duck government.
India’s support for this government appears mostly aimed at denying Nepal’s Maoists a share in power. This position seems linked to rising domestic Indian alarm over Naxalis. Home Minister P Chidambaram in his address to the conference of the India’s State police chiefs on Sept. 14 in New Delhi stated that the Naxalism has affected 2000 police stations in 223 districts of 13 States of India. At the same meeting, National Security Advisor M K Narayan expressed concerns about Maoist resurgence in Nepal.
India is right to be concerned about the failure of the Nepal Maoists to end violence. But this does not necessarily add up to the shrill arguments about Maoist takeover and havens for Indian Naxalism that find favour at the Embassy; and appear to be transmitted verbatim to South Block. India’s most senior Nepal expert, SD Muni has indelicately described the ideas of insurrection as: “bullshit”.
If security is the end goal of Indian policy then India has to realise — whether it likes it or not — that inclusion of Nepal’s Maoists in government is central to a stable and secure Nepal. All the main parties have demonstrated that if they are not included they can make life impossible for the government. There is no solution to the stalemate in Nepal without the Maoists, just as there is no solution without including the Nepali Congress. India’s current position of maintaining the stalemate adds to insecurity: it is not in India security interests.
More broadly, India’s policy on Nepal simply does not add up. India claims to support the peace process. Yet India provides public support to the Nepal Army and its supporters who vehemently oppose integration of the Maoist army. Integration (albeit undefined) is a central part of the peace process.
The consequences of this one sided policy are that they allow the Army and its right wing political supporters an effective destabilizing veto over the peace process. It will and is catalysing a Maoist reaction of increased protest and the very real threat of increased violence which could spiral. It prevents resolution of the peace process and provides momentum to the armed groups in the absence of security reform. It further adds momentum to the damaging process of polarisation that empowers those who favour extreme “solutions” and conflict at the expense of consensus politics. In these circumstances increased insecurity on India’s borders is inevitable.
Similarly, India must realise that a legitimate constitutional drafting process requires Maoist participation; they are the largest political party in the constituent assembly. Why would the Maoists soften their position as long as they are denied access to power?
The Maoists on their part must recognise India’s needs. It is a matter of common sense. Prachanda may act as the rabble-rouser to maintain equidistance from China and India but the fact remains India has unmatched leverage.
Nepal is landlocked by India. Nepal can get financial support from China but it is simply not possible to bring gasoline and food supplies for 27 million Nepali people by air. To bring Nepal to a standstill all India needs to do is to put two police constables respectively at the Mahendra Nagar side and the Kakarbitta side along the Indo-Nepal border to strangle Nepal.
Maoist anger against Indian interference cannot be addressed by attacking Indian priests at Pashupati Nath temple. It is one matter to demand the ouster of the Indian priest, it is another matter to strip and assault them. The Maoists may deny their involvement but it is an open secret that they were behind the attacks.
Nepal’s stalemate is a serious political issue with wide ranging consequences for India. The policy should be addressed by India’s politicians and not left to bureaucrats. It requires the engagement of political leaders. The absence of an Indian political party with leverage on the government of India and an interest in Nepal is a handicap. The CPI (M) which had an interest in Nepal affairs has no leverage on the current UPA government. The political parties in Bihar and UP across the spectrum have no interest on Nepal.
The Asian Centre for Human Rights believes that a first step to a more positive Indian role would be to appoint a political leader to play a role — similar to that played previously by Sitaram Yechury of the CPI(M) — as an envoy to break the impasse in Nepal. Yechury was instrumental not only in the negotiations between the Maoists and seven party alliance but also amongst the Maoists.
Such an envoy should provide political support for a national unity government and provide support to the parties to sign a new agreement to clarify areas of current disagreement and develop mechanisms to address the disagreements and bring the peace process on track.
If such an agreement could indeed be reached, India’s Prime Minister must visit Nepal. Policies announced by Foreign Secretary Rao will have meaning in such a situation. No Prime Minister of India has visited Nepal since then Prime Minister I K Gujaral in 1997. The first foreign visits undertaken by India’s Foreign Minister Mr S M Krishna and Home Minister P. Chidambaram were to Bhutan in, respectively, June and August of this year. Earlier, in May 2008, India’s Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh had also visited that country.
India claims to be a super power. But, it must also act responsibly and transparently. It must look beyond retired foreign secretaries while appointing envoys to Nepal. Many of the Indian political leaders share excellent rapport with the Nepalese political leaders and that should be utilised. A stable Nepal is very much in India’s national interest.