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Nepal: A Tale of Two Pillars and Three Poles

Nepal: A Tale of Two Pillars and Three Poles

By Sanjay Upadhya

India's declaration last week that it would not renew its transit treaty with Nepal unless "key issues" are resolved at a "higher level" scarcely came as a surprise. Ever since the Dhaka summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in November, leading Indian newspapers have been carrying editorials urging their government to use all possible means to teach the royal regime a fitting lesson.

Nepalese delegates to the talks in New Delhi said the key issues their Indian counterparts raised were not related to transit. That was not surprising, either. For India, economic arm-twisting to secure political goals proved useful long before the trade and transit embargo it imposed on the kingdom in the late 1980s.

In an interview with a Nepalese television channel, Indian Ambassador Shiv Shanker Mukherjee apparently ruled out reimposition of an embargo. He let viewers on a "key issue" India expected to discuss at a "higher level". The monarchy, in New Delhi's view, should remain the symbol of unity, continuity and integrity of the nation and should not compete with the political parties.

Elegant diplomatese for India's broad concerns over developments in Nepal since King Gyanendra took over full executive powers on Feb. 1 last year. Specifically, the cozying up with China and Pakistan and moves toward opening the kingdom's water resources to non-Indian investors, among other things.

After castigating the royal takeover, the dominant section of the New Delhi establishment spent the first half of 2005 mocking King Gyanendra's effort to play the "China card". The world had changed drastically, New Delhi's argument went, since his father's reign, when the term was in wide use in India.

The world has changed indeed. Nepal's success in linking China's inclusion in Saarc as an observer to Afghanistan's full membership showed that. When China backed its pledge of military support to Nepal by dispatching truckloads of supplies, the Indian government sat up and paid attention. The fact that the Indian, American and British embargoes compelled Nepal to turn to its northern neighbor barely mattered. New Delhi had to respond.

The seven-party alliance and Maoist rebels were already in regular consultations through the good offices of leftist groups backing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's coalition government. Transforming Nepal's tripolar conflict into a bipolar one – in appearance, not in content – acquired official urgency.

India's sense of isolation at the Asian summit in December reinforced in official New Delhi circles a reality that had long been apparent. Political and economic relations between the two Asian giants may have improved dramatically in recent years. Cooperation still contained dimensions of competition and confrontation.

Indian interest in Nepal's "China card" grew into a serious inquiry into China's motives in the kingdom and beyond. Indian Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee appeared ready to tolerate a one-time Chinese replenishment of Nepal's armory.

Enter Shyam Saran. The dapper ex-ambassador to Nepal, who superseded several seniors to be come foreign secretary, did not want to be drawn into the 12-point accord between the mainstream parties and Maoist rebels -- at least not in public. Saran's visit seemed to satisfy the palace, parties and rebels.

Although the 12-point accord failed to tame the palace, New Delhi did not exactly lose from it. It extracted a public undertaking from Maoist supremo Prachanda that his revolutionary cause was confined to Nepal. That statement came a day after he joined Ganapathy, the leader of India's Maoists, in vowing "to fight unitedly till the entire conspiracies hatched by the imperialists and reactionaries are crushed and the people’s cause of socialism and communism are established in Nepal, India and all over the world."

The Indian media has covered New Delhi's oscillation in novel ways. Much was made of a top Bharatiya Janata Party leader's participation at the Nepali Congress (Democratic)'s convention. (Hardly surprising to those who saw Nepal-India relations plunge to some of its lowest depths during the BJP's stint in power.)

Before that, we found out that the Royal Nepalese Army owes millions to Indian firms. (So much for the Indian complaint that its generous military assistance has gone unrecognized in the kingdom.)

The real story has been apparent all along. For the last 15 years, India has publicly advocated the twin-pillar theory of peace and stability in Nepal comprising constitutional monarchy and multiparty democracy. In reality, though, New Delhi has perfected the tri-polar policy in the kingdom.

By brandishing the monarchy-Nepali Congress stick, India forced the Rana rulers to sign the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship, an accord in perpetuity. When the Ranas fell from power and began dissolving into the palace camp, the Nepali Congress expected to fill the vacuum. For New Delhi, Nepal's communist and fringe parties started becoming more attractive.

Following B.P. Koirala's victory in Nepal's first multiparty elections in 1959, the palace and communists/fringe groups were already established poles. During the Panchayat decades, the Nepali Congress and the assortment of factions the communists provided India with a counterweight to the palace.

For New Delhi, the three-pole policy reestablished its efficacy in 1990, when the Nepali Congress and communists attained the hitherto unachievable: forging an alliance against the palace. Was B.P. Koirala's fierce anti-communism the principal obstacle to a broad opposition front in Nepal? If Ganesh Man Singh was such an adroit consensus builder, how could he end up not finding room in his own Nepali Congress?

As Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala used his control of the government to dominate the Nepali Congress, India revived a baffling interest in the palace. A visiting Indian prime minister would attach greater importance to the "quiet dinner" scheduled with King Birendra than formal sessions with his real host.

Throughout the first half of the 1990s, despite their own internal fissures, the Nepali Congress and Unified Marxist-Leninists remained bitter rivals. But they were constituents of the same pole: the parliamentary mainstream. The Maoists emerged to underpin the third dimension.

What is behind the palace's confidence in the midst of such heavy domestic and international odds? Perhaps recognition that bipolarity has never been – and will never be -- the real desire of its most vociferous foreign proponent?


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