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Sanjay Upadhya: Conundrum Of Closeness

Nepal And India: Conundrum Of Closeness

By Sanjay Upadhya

The much-extolled close relationship between Nepal and India has unmasked the conundrum that it is. A shared religious, cultural and social heritage has been at the core of these “special relations,” a term New Delhi prefers, often to the consternation of Nepalis. The complexities of the relationship have now come to define deliberations.

India’s flip-flop on the political crisis in Nepal is emblematic of the contradictions that lurked beneath the surface. In the immediate aftermath of the royal takeover, India took a hard-line against King Gyanendra’s regime. New Delhi pulled out of a South Asian summit in Bangladesh, officially citing the security situation in the host country. The move, however, underlined India’s intention to avoid granting legitimacy to the monarch, who in his twin role as head of government would have attended the conference. The Indian government’s decision to suspend military aid proved more problematic.

As the world’s most populous democracy, India was naturally predisposed to react the way it did. India’s displeasure with the palace’s effort to marginalize major political parties was evident in subsequent comments. Politicians of all Nepalese mainstream parties have an affinity with India. Some participated in the Indian independence movement as student activists. Others spent years in exile in Indian cities while political parties remained banned between 1960 and 1990.

Indeed, India’s “setback to democracy” refrain has a larger relevance. A claimant to a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council could not have broken ranks with the three veto-wielding western democracies: United States, Britain and France.

The ‘specialness’ of bilateral ties immediately posed a problem. India insists that Nepal is treaty bound to request New Delhi for any military assistance. Going by that interpretation, India’s voluntary arms embargo would free Nepal from a menacing element of the relationship. The fear of China or Pakistan stepping into vacuum injected some realism in New Delhi. The meeting in Jakarta between King Gyanendra and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh brought some clarity to bilateral relations, but not much. Depending on which Indian official one turned to, arms supplies were either under constant review or already on their way to the Royal Nepalese Army arsenal.

Clearly, the Indian government is deeply split over Nepal. The Ministry of External Affairs saw a hard-line against the palace as a way of bolstering its democratic credentials globally and an opportunity to boost its credibility among Nepalis suspicious of Indian intentions. The Ministries of Defense and Home Affairs believed an arms embargo on the kingdom would strengthen the hands of the Maoists rebels fighting to overthrow the monarchy – and, by extension, their Indian allies. Intelligence reports say armed Indian Maoists groups have a presence in 170 districts in 15 states of India, suggesting they may pose a greater threat to Indian security than the Kashmir insurgents do.

Each of the ruling alliance members in New Delhi had their own fraternal constituencies in Nepal. The communists were the most vocal critics of Prime Minister Singh’s assurance to King Gyanendra on a resumption of military supplies. As supporters of the government from outside, the communists’ made their political intentions clear. When Prime Minister Singh’s government tried to appease the communists, the Indian army started getting jittery.

Indian Army chief Gen. J.J. Singh, who turned down an invitation to visit the kingdom days after the palace takeover, felt the politicians in the Home and Defense Ministries were more concerned about their own political turf. Apparently, he went directly to Prime Minister Singh’s national security adviser pleading for a lifting of the embargo. Dipping morale among 40,000 Nepalese serving in the Indian army, together with the imperative of preserving deep links with the Royal Nepalese Army forced Gen. Singh into action.

The royal government, too, mobilized an important Indian constituency: the grass-roots Hindu nationalist groups backing the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Although the BJP was understandably hesitant to publicly back the palace takeover, it allowed leading MPs to voice their views. To the faithful flock, an atheist communist assault on the very existence of the world’s only Hindu kingdom was no small matter.

There is another constituency that can be expected to grow more vociferous in support of engagement with the royal regime: India’s business community. A leading entrepreneur closely associated with business interests of Nepal’s royal family has just been elected head of the influential Confederation of Indian Industry.

In a rare flourish of candor, Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar recently wrote on how India has always been riding two boats, one of the king and the other of political parties. “We have played one against the other for our own interest and seen to it that neither of the two emerges so strong that it does not need us,” he added.

That in essence has been India’s twin-pillar policy. Accordingly, New Delhi continues engagement with the royal regime while backing the opposition alliance. The Royal Nepalese Army, apparently irked by the ambiguity surrounding the arms supplies, uncovered a third element. At a news conference last week, it came out with a tape recording purportedly showing India’s intention to open conditional direct talks with the Nepalese rebels.

India’s jugglery of factional interests in Nepal will undoubtedly continue to masquerade as coherent policy. This time Nepal seems to be in a mood of reciprocity, having borrowed some pages from its giant southern neighbor’s playbook.


Sanjay Upadhya, a Nepalese journalist based in the United States, has been a Fulbright Scholar at New York University

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