Salman Khurshids short visit was long overdue. Can it help salvage Indias image?
They all came on their own,without our extending any invitation, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid told journalists at the end of his nine-hour visit to Nepal on Tuesday. His answer was in response to a question on whether the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M),the breakaway group from the main Maoist party,had been invited too,for his sessions with Nepals four major parties the Nepali Congress (NC),the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M),the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) and individuals and parties from the Madhes region.
But the truth appeared to be somewhat different. The Indian embassy in Kathmandu invited leaders of the four parties individually to the Dwarika Hotel where Khurshid was staying. Despite his statement,soon after he became foreign minister,that India has no favourites in Nepal and that it would maintain relations with all forces,he chose not to meet two of them: the
CPN-M,led by Mohan Baidya Kiran which is heading the campaign to boycott the elections,and the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal,crusading for the restoration of constitutional monarchy and Nepals status as a Hindu nation both lost after the 2006 change that had Indias backing. More than six years down the line,with constitution-writing having failed and political and economic instability causing more uncertainty,India invariably gets linked to the mess that Nepal is in.
There is hardly any visible public enthusiasm for the elections due in November,but Khurshid made it clear that he was in Kathmandu to promise all the help Nepal wanted. An imperfect election is better than no election,and an imperfect constitution is better than no constitution, was his advice to the NC. But while India and other stakeholders harp on elections,there is no guarantee that key actors will agree on the components of the constitution.
With India poised for general elections,Khurshid may have been in a hurry to visit. But it is too early to predict if he will be able to make a real assessment of the political situation the prevailing uncertainty that has resulted in anti-India feelings and Chinas enlarged presence and report to the prime minister about a possible way to address these issues. Moreover,he chose to come at a time when Ranjit Rae has been named Indias ambassador to Nepal,to replace Jayant Prasad,who completes his tenure in August. NC general secretary K.P. Sitaula even pleaded with Khurshid to let Prasad continue till the conclusion of the November elections.
This visit by a senior Indian politician was overdue. But it took place three weeks after
Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi paid an official visit,promising help for the elections. In fact,CPN-M leader Baidya made a mysterious trip to China on the eve of Khurshids visit,which sent out the clear message that China will use its leverage in Nepal from now on,and Beijing seems to be lobbying for polls that will exclude no one.
Even the former king,Gyanendra,recently said that an atmosphere conducive to the participation of all parties should be created for a meaningful election. He must be hoping that monarchists too will have a substantial presence unlike the last Constituent Assembly elections that saw the Election Commission,the four big parties and international observers shutting their eyes to largescale rigging,impersonation and obstruction. The government led by Chief Justice Khil Raj Regmi has often been branded as a puppet of the four party-syndicate,but Khurshid apparently complimented Regmi for the courage to shoulder such responsibility at a time of need. What the minister was unmindful of was the consequence of a CJ assuming an executive chiefs post and its impact on the credibility of the judiciary.
With Nepals judicial system discredited,some European states and NGOs are asking the government to sign the Rome Statute. It may not be acceptable for India to have the International Criminal Court in its neighbourhood,but a discredited justice system will have its consequences. Maoists have so far resisted the move because their human rights record is much worse than the states.
Khurshid may have no choice but to endorse his governments lines on Nepal,including befriending the Maoists and hastily throwing out the monarchy,without an effective substitute in place,resulting in Chinas growing presence and Indias distancing from the NC,a democratic force close to Delhi in the past. His short visit will have been a success only if he recognised the impact these actions have left on Indias image and on bilateral relations. Most of the invitees of the Indian embassy are the ones responsible for the failure to draft the constitution that would have led Nepal to democracy and economic stability.