By M K Bhadrakumar
For any Indian who ever felt intrigued as to why South Asian neighbors often dislike his country, the past fortnight offered clues. Like in a Tennessee Williams play, painful to watch as the plot thickens slowly and invidiously, as protagonists begin tearing each other apart in quiet despair after love begins to drain or threatens to flee, India and Nepal are still locked in an embrace.
Someone must do the merciful act of separating them; of making them behave as they should – as two sovereign countries. Indian papers are full of interviews by Nepal’s former prime minister Prachanda, who claims he was deposed in a concerted conspiracy by the Indian bureaucratic establishment. He repeatedly claimed that at a time when the seasoned Indian politicians who by instinct understood Nepali politicians and their native ways have been out of Delhi on the grueling campaign trail in the current parliamentary elections, the mandarins of the Indian bureaucratic establishment settled scores with him and his Maoist party.
According to the Maoists, the Indian establishment has forced them out of power in a virtual coup by rallying disparate political elements and vested interests opposed to them in Kathmandu on various counts, including the Nepalese army and Nepal’s deposed king.
The Indian establishment is not generally known for such neat planning or efficiency. But what matters is that in Nepali public perceptions, the allegation resonates. Any Indian diplomat who has served in India’s neighborhood can tell that India carries the burden of a larger-than-life profile. There is a wealth of misconceptions among India’s neighbors about its capacity to harm. The common perception is that India can be a ill-tempered, self-righteous bully.
But the ungainly truth, as often happens, gingerly lies somewhere in the middle. True, India can probably muster a quick temper and may even be capable of doing mischief if its feathers are ruffled, but then, if its neighbors are clever enough, they can pay back in the same coin.
Take Sri Lanka. In the early 1980s, Delhi took a deliberate decision to start a quarrel with Sri Lanka’s Western-oriented leadership in Colombo. Several complicated factors led to the quarrel, including vanities at the leadership level, but it overtly wore the look of a pale Indian variant of the Monroe Doctrine.
Delhi wanted the unhelpful leadership in Colombo to be put in its place – like the Maoists in Kathmandu who showed the audacity to warm up to China’s friendly overtures. Books have been written which graphically describe that Delhi fostered the Sri Lankan Tamil insurgent groups as an instrument of foreign policy to pressure the then Sri Lankan government under president J R Jayewardene.
If so, Delhi truly underestimated the tenacity of the Colombo political elite to hit back. The grit of small countries, which depend paramountly on their wits rather than muscle to safeguard their autonomy, is something too hard to believe. Before Delhi could count to ten, Jayewardene sought and won an Indian military intervention in Sri Lanka to put down the very same Tamil insurgency it thoughtfully fostered in the first instance. And, amazingly, in no time, Delhi agreed to do the unthinkable – dispatch an expedition to intervene in a neighboring country’s civil war.
But Colombo soon made yet another neat somersault and the Indian military expedition in Sri Lanka found itself to be the common target of the Tamil insurgents and the Sri Lankan security forces alike. The result was that after the loss of a few thousand Indian soldiers and the assassination of a former Indian prime minister, Delhi wound up its expedition in Sri Lanka in shame and ignominy and sailed home. But the story didn’t end there.
The Colombo elite, having tasted blood, allowed Delhi a brief respite before working on its vanities again and getting the Indian elite on its side even as another bloody chapter of the civil war was unrolling. Some say the Indian establishment was not so dumb-witted as made out to be, but was probably on a brilliant Machiavellian act in assisting Colombo to vanquish the Tamil insurgent army. Time will tell.
At any rate, if the Maoists are clever, they would do a Colombo act on Delhi. It seems they may do just that. They are reaching out to a political formation at the other end of Nepal’s fragmented political spectrum comprising Nepalis of ethnic Indian origin who are commonly seen as Delhi’s proxy on the Nepalese democratic chessboard – the Joint Madhesi Democratic Front (JMDF).
Quite possibly, the Maoists may have calculated that with their 230 members in an alliance with the 83 members of the JMDF, they can be a force in the 601-member parliament that can spike the incipient plans of a ganging-up by Nepal’s status quo parties as a new non-Maoist coalition government. At the very least, the Maoists are seeking to avoid political isolation.
But it could presage something more. The Maoists are evidently reaching out to Indian public opinion as well over the head of the Indian bureaucratic establishment. They are doing what the Colombo elite would have surely done in similar circumstances.
At the very minimum, one has to be truly moronic to miss the point that the Maoists want to play by the democratic rules; that they do not want to return to the jungles and become guerillas again; that they are pragmatic enough to cross ideological divides; and, quite probably, they want to be Delhi’s favorites in the corridors of power in Kathmandu. So, what is the problem?
The problem seems to lie in a five-letter word – China. The malaise bears a striking similarity with the early 1980s when the Jayewardene government in Colombo took to the free market with gusto, was favorably inclined to accede to the setting up of a Voice of America transmitter within earshot of India, was reportedly allowing in Israeli intelligence specialists, and was toying with the idea of leasing out Trincomalee’s fine natural harbor and its vast “oil farm” built by imperial Britain during World war II as a naval base for the Americans.
The supreme irony is that today Delhi is not going to lose sleep over any of those daredevil things that Jayewardene likely contemplated. Today, a quarter century later, India has not only taken to the market, but the current government in Delhi, which is about to complete its term, subscribed to the Washington consensus even after the Americans began losing faith in it.
The Israelis of course are all over India, with the visiting Israeli army chief taken to Kashmir last September on a counter-insurgency tour and Indian space scientists launching away Israeli “spy” satellites. India today not only desires a strong US naval presence in the Indian Ocean (as a “counterweight” to China) but aspires to be the US Navy’s preferred partner. If Indians don’t care to listen to Voice of America, it is merely because they have chosen to watch CNN.
Alas, the Indian strategic community’s ire about the Nepalese Maoist dalliance with China is a replay of the xenophobia that was prevalent in Delhi in the early 1980s. True, China is taking an excessively high degree of interest in Nepal. But that isn’t because Nepal’s biggest political party subscribes to Maoism or because Beijing wants to add yet another “pearl” to its “string” around India, to borrow the famous words of a minor analyst working for the Pentagon which have become the hot favorite idiom among Indian strategic thinkers.
The fact is that China is keen to plug the infiltration route of Tibetan militants who travel to and from India via Nepal. It is a crucial issue for Beijing. Unsurprisingly, China will go the extra mile to ensure there is a friendly government in Kathmandu that dissociates itself completely from the “low-intensity war” waged in Tibet by militants coming in from outside. Just as China pays enormous attention to its Central Asian neighbors to ensure that Uyghur militants from the outside world do not infiltrate the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.
Kyrgyzstan may have a population less than five million, but when a Kyrgyz dignitary comes calling, Beijing rolls out a red carpet as if US President Barack Obama had arrived. That shows an acute sense of national priorities, as a sizeable Uyghur community lives in Kyrgyzstan.
Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that China has begun assiduously courting the democratic leadership in Nepal. Or, that the Maoist government began cooperating with China to clamp down on the activities of the Tibetan activists who operated out of Nepalese soil through the past half-century.
China will not be deterred from befriending Nepal on the crucial question of tranquility and stability in Tibet, no matter what it takes. The time is not far off before Beijing offers Nepal a berth in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Indeed, China has the political will and the financial capacity to offer to Nepal what Delhi could have offered through the past six decades and failed to do – staking a common future as partners in economic development and regional stability. China’s reach is enormous today. It has just replaced the United States as Brazil’s top trade partner.
Countering the Chinese challenge in Nepal needs imagination, a coherent game plan and a sustained approach on India’s part. Muscle-flexing is not the answer. Nor is diplomatic one-upmanship the answer or the pretensions by the right-wing Hindu nationalist outfits in India that Nepal is their sequestered pasture.
Antagonizing the Maoists will not be a smart thing to do, as they represent historical forces that are on the ascendance and they will be around as the dominant political force in Nepal, sure as the sun rises in the east. But there are pragmatic ways in which the Maoists could be made to view Delhi as their preferred partner. Arguably, the Maoists are themselves already intensely conscious that they cannot do without India’s cooperation.
Contrary to the Indian security establishment’s earlier doomsday scenario, the Maoists are not messing around with the radical left movements professing to follow Mao Zedong’s ideology which are active in something like 160 out of India’s 600 districts. That shows a high degree of sensitivity to India’s national-security concerns.
But what Delhi should scrupulously avoid is any interference in Nepal’s internal affairs. Let the Nepalese settle their squabbles themselves over drawing up a new constitution and charting out their future. Leave it to the Nepalese political parties to carve out their space on the democratic arena. Political parties begin to die when they cease to be relevant.
The forces, which Delhi might have favored when Nepal was a “Hindu kingdom”, may no more be capable of representing the people’s aspirations. India cannot resurrect them. Let them die. Of course, it will be dangerous to encourage the Nepalese army to harbor Praetorian instincts, either. South Asia has had enough of armies.
India will always enjoy a huge advantage over China in cultivating Nepal – of history, geography, culture, ethnicity, economy and social bonds and kinship. Where India loses is that it cannot get its act together as a driving force for Nepal’s emergence out of abject poverty. That is the leitmotif of China’s challenge to India. The entire sub-Himalayan region will incrementally feel gravitation toward China as Tibet surges forward at its present level of economic transformation and Beijing shows a willingness to share the cake.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
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