Friday, May 28, 2010

A Missing Piece of Nepal’s Jigsaw: India

Politics in Nepal is often a lot more about India than about Nepal itself.

Many Nepalese political parties sustain themselves on a steady diet of scaremongering about the neighbor to the East, West and South.

The geography of a landlocked country dependent on its big neighbor for almost all of its imports and most of its exports has also shaped the national psyche. After all, as John Whelpton, author of a history of Nepal, puts it, to many in Nepal their being a Nepali comes directly from strong sense of not being an Indian.

So as Nepal stands on the brink of a constitutional crisis because of the political parties’ failure to meet tonight’s deadline to write a new constitution, what has India been doing?

Not too much. And that’s the news.

In the past, every time Nepal faced a crisis, India stepped in one way or the other. And, to be sure, India’s current ambassador to Nepal, Rakesh Sood, was in news in Kathmandu Thursday for his meeting with Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal.

In an interview with India Real Time, Mr. Sood said “ It is not for India or any other country to play a role” in ending the current political deadlock over extending the life of the Constituent Assembly in Nepal. Though,he added,“ Anything that will happen has to be driven by consensus among the parties so that it enjoys the political legitimacy.”

AFP/Getty Images
An Indian patrol along the Indo-Nepal border.

But Nepal observers say India’s role in Nepal has changed since the popular uprising of April 2006. Back then, India sent high-profile Congress party member Karan Singh as its special envoy to talk to then-King Gyanendra Shah as protestors stormed into the streets of Kathmandu in a bid to bring down the monarchy.

The king succumbed to the protestors following Mr. Singh’s visit (Kathmandu still ponders over the mystery of what Mr. Singh told Mr. Shah to convince him to give power back to the political parties), paving the way for the revival of parliament and the elected government the king himself had dissolved.

Since then, India has abandoned its long-held “twin-pillar” theory of supporting the co-existence of a constitutional monarchy and multiparty democracy. As India’s former ambassador to Nepal, Deb Mukharji, told the Wall Street Journal in May 2008, India’s only pillar is now “the will of the people of Nepal.”

On Friday, as he observed the developments in Nepal from his residence in New Delhi, Mr. Mukharji said reduced Indian interventions in Nepal were because “it’s in India’s interest to go by what people in Nepal decide.”

K.V. Rajan, another former Indian ambassador to Nepal, told India Real Time: “India has been watching latest situations in Nepal with concern,” but is refraining from “playing an augmented role.”

The political parties in Nepal, especially the Maoists, have entrenched suspicions against India and its role in their country. One popular piece of rhetoric from Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal is that the ruling parties in Nepal right now are the “puppets of India.”

He raised eyebrows in Kathmandu for an audacious speech to a gathering of his supporters in December in which he said his party would no longer hold talks with the ruling parties, but would now talk directly to their “masters” — a reference to the political establishment in New Delhi.

Even if India remains at a distance diplomatically, there is a need for trust as the basis of the relationship, says Mr. Mukharji. “Geography has put us together, our past history has put us together. Nepal and India cannot be suspicious of each other,” he says.