Nextdoor Nepal: Last minute gesture

India, no doubt, is a big influence on Nepal’s development and politics.

Updated: March 24, 2014 12:01:31 am
koirala Nepal’s Prime Minister, Sushil Koirala. (PTI)

Kathmandu is looking forward to a visit by the outgoing Indian PM

As India begins the process of its Lok Sabha polls, the government normally maintains a low profile and acts more as a caretaker administration. An official or state visit abroad by the prime minister is usually avoided, except in case of an extraordinary situation.

But Nepal’s authorities at the highest level are quietly discussing the possibility of a visit, for a few hours, by Indian PM Manmohan Singh. Nepal’s PM, Sushil Koirala, had a meeting with Singh in Myanmar in the first week of March on the sidelines of the BIMSTEC summit, where Singh expressed his keenness on even a “flying visit” in response to an invitation extended by Koirala. Back home, Koirala discussed the issue with Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) chief Prachanda and others for their approval.

India, no doubt, is a big influence on Nepal’s development and politics. The prevailing crisis — the absence of a constitution and the country’s inability to handle the radical changes brought by the externally supported political movement of 2006 — is the reason for popular frustration and public anger is directed at the current actors as well as the external factors. In Nepal’s seminar circuit, especially when Nepal-India relations are discussed, India often gets blamed for leaving its Nepal policy to its “babudom”, including its intelligence wing. The proof, it is said, is that an Indian PM (I.K. Gujral) last visited Nepal in a bilateral context 17 years ago. A.B. Vajpayee came in 2002, but that was to attend the SAARC summit.

Will Singh’s visit at this stage make up for that? Will it be approved in India? “Yes, a short visit of a few hours, and his returning the same day, is being explored,” a senior government authority said, adding “it has been discussed informally between the two sides.” In fact, India’s major shift on its Nepal policy has taken place under Singh, and it’s speculated here that his visit will mean an endorsement of those changes at the highest level. Nepal became a republic in 2008, with India shedding its “twin-pillars theory” of support to both the monarchy and political parties. Nepal was also declared a federal and secular state. This drastic decision involved befriending the Maoists and dealing with them for the promotion of bilateral interests and relations — although Singh’s government continued to project the Indian Maoists, pursuing the same political philosophy objectives, as the biggest threat to India’s internal security.

Nepal’s Maoists have since split and got weaker as their presence in the new Constituent Assembly has come down to 80 from 237. Although, as far back as December 2012, the Maoists officially said “India is not an enemy country”, its leaders, including Prachanda, have often criticised India for its attempt to “micro-manage” Nepal’s affairs. Anti-Indianism continues to dominate the mindset of the party.

But more than that, the leadership of India’s likely new government — the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance — has resented the prevailing mess in Nepal and the Indian government’s role in it. Jaswant Singh, reacting to the removal of the monarchy and India’s support for the Maoists, had said that the “government of India has mortgaged its Nepal policy to the CPM”. The BJP’s current chief, Rajnath Singh, went on record saying that India’s Nepal policy had proved to be a “disaster”. China’s presence and enlarged interests, especially in the post-monarchy phase of institutional vacuum and erosion of state authority, have apparently annoyed the BJP. Rajnath Singh has often told Nepal’s leaders, including successive PMs visiting India, that doing away with Nepal’s status as a Hindu nation was wrong, and suggested a roll back.

Nepal’s radical “secularists” fear that the possible victory of Narendra Modi may impact Nepal’s “progressive march” towards republicanism and secularism. They feel that Singh’s visit, even at this late hour, will be an assurance that as far as India is concerned, Nepal’s new identity is irreversible. In fact, as Nepali authorities admit, some key architects of India’s radical Nepal policy post-2006 are in regular contact with Nepal’s current leadership and are persuading them to “invite” Manmohan Singh.

In fact, the Indian government is visibly wary of anti-change sentiments in Nepal and the criticism directed at itself. The pro-monarchy Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal emerged as the fourth largest in the House. Karan Singh, here last month, chose not to meet former king Gyanendra and there is speculation that it was not his decision alone. He was the special emissary of Manmohan Singh in April 2006 to successfully persuade Gyanendra to handover power. Around the same time last month, Rajnath Singh cancelled his visit to Kathmandu at the last minute, apparently to avoid criticising the Indian government’s Nepal policy in a “foreign land”.

India’s election and the NDA’s possible victory will have a bearing on Nepal’s politics. But how much and in which direction is not yet clear. The outgoing UPA government is apparently aware of the Indian leadership’s abdication of its long established role in Nepal, in inverse proportion to China’s growing interest in its south.

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