Nepal: Yes, All Roads Lead To Delhi, But…
Nepal: Yes, All Roads Lead To Delhi, But…
By Krishna Singh Bam
A few years ago, Hridayesh Tripathi, a senior leader of Nepal Goodwill Party, wryly noted that all major Nepalese political organizations had their headquarters in New Delhi. The statement summed up the preponderant influence India had begun to exercise over Nepalese affairs after the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990.
The statement also was significant because it came from someone whose party primarily draws support from communities indigenous to Nepal's southern plains along the Indian border. Social, cultural and religious ties, among other factors, have fostered extensive contacts across the open border with India. Because of this, some in the northern parts of Nepal often question the loyalty of these communities. Tripathi obviously wanted to rebut the notion that his party and its constituents took orders from India.
Although the "pro-Indian" label may sometimes help, most politicians would vouch that it is a political liability during election time. Amid Nepal's unstable politics – three general elections in eight years, with each legislature having been dissolved before its five-year term was over – the label could be dangerous.
In the nearly six months since King Gyanendra took over direct control of the government, the leaders of all mainstream opposition parties have visited New Delhi. Although officially there for "medical treatment", Nepalese politicians have held extensive consultations with senior Indian politicians in power and in the opposition than with their doctors. The Maoist rebels, whose anti-monarchy insurgency also aims to reverse decades of Indian "expansionist" policies in Nepal, too, sent a senior delegation for consultations in the Indian capital.
Responding to allegations of "anti-nationalism" leveled by members of the royal regime, Pradip Nepal, a senior leader of the country's largest mainstream communist party, the Unified Marxist-Leninist, suggested that these critics roamed the streets of Delhi in the dark. The UML leader's obvious reference was to the fact that Foreign Minister Pandey chose New Delhi as his first destination and to the series of visits to the Indian capital by palace emissaries.
Now that the playing field has been leveled, it would be instructive to compare how the palace and the parties have fared in the game since Indian independence in 1947. Admittedly, India was instrumental in restoring King Tribhuvan to the throne in 1951. However, one must not forget that the current monarch, King Gyanendra, as a toddler, kept the Shah dynasty's succession intact. The suggestion that India restored the monarchy as an institution and is, therefore, entitled to special consideration is a monumental misreading of history.
The chain of overt Indian influence in Nepalese affairs, encouraged during the 1950s in large part by the principal political parties, was broken with King Mahendra's abolition of the multiparty system and introduction of the partyless Panchayat system. Much was made of King Mahendra’s personal ambitions for power. However, events during the time largely substantiated his distrust of parties as divisive elements and pawns of foreign powers that obstructed his vision of national integration. For the new regime, under tremendous pressure from India, quiet diplomacy became the order of the day.
Critics of the palace's record in promoting Nepalese nationalism regularly cite the royal regime's acquiescence in Indian military's occupation of the territory of Kalapani and Kathmandu's secret 1965 accord with New Delhi governing Nepal's defense requirements. Those sordid episodes cannot mask the palace's achievements in breaking free from India's political and security stranglehold. By the end of the 1960s, Nepal had succeeded in becoming a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and was gradually raising its international profile. The country emerged out of the league of Himalayan monarchies India claimed were its "near abroad". The royal regime, moreover, succeeded in evicting Indian military checkpoints along Nepal's northern border with China.
Nepal continued the process of exercising its sovereign options under King Birendra, who ascended the throne in 1972 following his father's death. In the aftermath of India's annexation of the Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim, King Birendra proposed during his coronation in 1975 that Nepal be declared a zone of peace. Indians and their Nepalese minions protested that the proposal was clearly directed against India. But 116 countries that supported the proposal correctly saw it as a manifestation of Nepal's aspiration to live in peace in an increasingly turbulent region.
The palace continued standing up for Nepal's sovereign rights, most notably in its decision to buy a consignment of arms from China at bargain rates. The Indian government leaked the text of the 1965 agreement under which Nepal promised to buy arms only from India or, if India could not meet its needs, from Britain or America. Nepal continued to cite the cost factor.
After months of behind-the-scenes pressure tactics failed, India decided to flex its muscles by imposing an economic embargo against the kingdom. New Delhi cleverly sought to portray the episode as an outcome of the two governments' inability to renew their trade and transit treaties. It also sought to shield itself from international criticism by keeping open two out of 15 transit points, instead of the single point Kathmandu was entitled to under international law. But no euphemism could mitigate the severity of the embargo's impact.
Only when the embargo appeared to harden Nepalese public opinion and create sympathy for the kingdom abroad did India back the movement for the restoration of democracy. It remains unclear how much India really expected the democracy movement to succeed, especially since it was trying till the very end to force King Birendra sign an 80-page "package of solutions." (Such dubiousness was hardly new for Nepal. India had forced the last hereditary prime minister of Nepal, Mohan Sumshere Rana, to sign a controversial Peace and Friendship Treaty in 1950, promising to save his tottering government. Once the treaty was initialed, New Delhi actively began working to undermine the Rana regime.)
The draft India presented to King Birendra demanded, among other things, joint surveillance of the Nepal-China border; training of Nepalese army personnel by India; foreign-aided projects along the Indian border to require New Delhi's concurrence; guaranteed property rights to Indians in Nepal; and termination of all Nepali laws in contravention of Nepal-India treaties. For all practical purposes, India wanted to turn Nepal into a colony.
Following the restoration of multiparty democracy, as a quid pro quo, the supreme leader of the movement, Ganesh Man Singh, announced that the new constitution would drop the peace zone proposal. The fact that India presented the same 80-page draft to interim prime minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai and went on haggling for more Nepalese concessions before formally lifting the embargo must have shaken the multiparty leaders into reality.
Nevertheless, Indian influence exceeded its 1950-1960 levels after 1990. Power politics moved from the royal palace to the Indian Embassy just across the street. Politicians in search for favors abandoned their morning supplications at residences of the king's secretaries to crowd the offices of the first and second secretaries of the Indian Embassy. At diplomatic receptions, prominent politicians of all parties who kept denigrating the king in public could be seen groveling before the Indian ambassador and his deputy.
The UML, which protested Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala's Tanakpur accord with India on sharing Nepal's water resources as a "sellout", went on to support the broader and much more damaging Mahakali Treaty. The detailed project report that should have been completed in six months is nowhere in sight. In the meantime, the project site in the Indian border state of Uttar Pradesh now falls within the jurisdiction of the newly created state of Uttaranchal.
In some instances, there was virtual political consensus in appeasing India. Nepal's lower house of parliament voted in favor of legislation that would have granted citizenship to millions of Indians at one stroke of the pen. To ensure that King Birendra did not stand in the way of its becoming law, the legislators sent the measure to the palace as a finance bill. According to the constitution, such bills, in effect, would have the full force of law even without royal approval. Responding to public opposition, King Birendra sought the advice of the Supreme Court on the legislation's legality. The court ruled against the bill, preventing a certain national catastrophe.
In the three years since the first phase of palace rule began under King Gyanendra, there have been media reports of damaging Nepalese concessions to India on issues of water resources, extradition of third-country nationals and other issues. If the aggressive Nepalese media has not been able to dig up specifics of fresh palace "sell-outs", it certainly is not for lack of effort. The monarch's full takeover on Feb. 1 has estranged the two countries, with India using all kinds of pressure to force a palace rollback. In recent weeks, New Delhi has been actively seeking to build an anti-palace alliance between the mainstream opposition parties and the Maoist rebels.
Meanwhile, an interesting episode in Nepal-India relations is being played out in Kathmandu. India's Minister of State for External Affairs Rao Inderjit Singh is on a three-day visit to lobby Kathmandu's support for New Delhi's bid for permanent membership on the UN Security Council. With passions riding high on competing plans for reforming the Security Council, every vote will count in the General Assembly session beginning in September.
In an interview with The Japan Times earlier this month, Nepalese Foreign Minister Ramesh Nath Pandey said Kathmandu backed Tokyo's bid for permanent Security Council membership, but was undecided about the claims of India, Germany and Brazil, the other members of the so-called G-4. On Inderjit Singh's mission, one Indian news service noted: "India will have to make further concessions to the beleaguered monarchy. Nepal is likely to drive a hard bargain."
True, all roads from Kathmandu lead to Delhi. It's just that some people have a better record of walking back with accomplishments to show.