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Sanjay Upadhya: Nepal - A Spring Of Surprises?

Nepal: A Spring Of Surprises?

By Sanjay Upadhya

With April just around the corner, Nepal’s horizon is spreading out with all kinds of possibilities. The onset of the Nepali New Year in the middle of the month is accompanied with an abiding expectation that the country may finally be able to put its worst behind. The political significance of April, too, is great. It was around this period that Nepal’s two major pro-democracy movements – in 1979 and 1990 -- reached their zenith.

As the mainstream political parties and the Maoists prepare to step up their campaign against King Gyanendra’s regime, a deeper convulsion may be in the offing. Nepal’s transit treaty with India, a contentious issue even in the best of times, set to expire. During the last talks in New Delhi, Nepali officials saw India tying “unrelated matters” to a new accord. New Delhi agreed to a three-month extension, setting off wild speculation over the range of “concessions” it might be seeking from the royal regime.

Whether the Indian negotiators had the political significance of April in mind while defining the interim arrangement remains unclear. For Nepal, a sense of déjà vu is hard to avoid: during 1989-90, India’s crippling trade and transit embargo morphed into a political movement against a regime New Delhi considered strategically and politically hostile.

A fresh round of talks between the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoist rebels has begun in New Delhi. A fresh barrage of editorials and op-ed pieces in leading Indian newspapers, blaming the monarchy for the political and economic impoverishment of Nepal, can be expected in the days ahead.

King Gyanendra’s government seems unperturbed, at least in public. Does the royal regime feel Nepal is better able this time to withstand another Indian economic blockade? Does it expect China to step in with assistance more aggressively this time? In 1989-90, Beijing’s offered token support to the palace – a few truckloads of salt, to be precise. Then-premier Li Peng visited Kathmandu during the height of the embargo. At a news conference, he politely advised Nepal to sort out its differences with its giant southern neighbor amicably. It is hard to tell whether Chinese State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan, who is scheduled to visit the kingdom, may depart from Beijing’s propensity for public adherence to noninterference.

Precarious State

The palace appears to be banking on the growing international recognition of the precarious state of Nepal. Ministers may still be ruling out a foreign role in resolving the conflict, but their spin cannot obscure the fact that Nepal’s conflict has long been internationalized. As Maoist military strategist Ram Bahadur Thapa Badal said a few years ago, Nepal has become a sliver of dynamite between two boulders with enough firepower to send splinters flying all over.

The Maoist insurgency means different things to the different stakeholders. The schizophrenia gripping the Indian establishment shows few signs of going into remission. New Delhi still considers the Nepalese Maoists as terrorists and continues to detain some leaders under its National Security Act. However, influential sections in the Indian government also see the Maoists as a formidable component in the broader anti-palace alliance.

In a quid pro quo, the Maoist leadership has more than ceased its diatribes against India. Rebel supremo Prachanda is bending over backwards to dilute ideological affinity with Maoist groups across the border that are posing a growing threat to the Indian state. Admittedly, Prachanda has come a long way since the compact revolutionary zone he envisaged for South Asia. New Delhi, for its part, seems to be demanding a full severing of links before supplanting the Maoists as the second pillar of stability in a republican Nepal.

For now, though, the thought of mainstreaming of the Maoists is proving doubly delightful in New Delhi. The real extent of India’s role in engineering the 12-point mainstream-Maoist accord became clear in the aftermath of American Ambassador James F. Moriarty’s public attacks on the alliance. Nearly every leading Indian newspaper carried an editorial castigating Moriarty for seeking to subvert an enterprise that enjoyed such overt Indian blessings.

For the United States, Nepal’s Maoists represent the worst of both the cold war and the post-9/11 world: hardcore communism mixed with terrorism. Let’s say Washington eventually considered the palace a greater threat than the Maoists. Would Prachanda and Dr. Baburam Bhattarai be able to wade out of the virulent cesspool of anti-Americanism they have created without losing credibility?

The SPA has called President George W. Bush’s comments on Nepal, during his joint press conference with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi, as a blow to the king. But wasn’t the first part of Bush’s advice only reiterating the need for a process the king has belatedly begun?

Moreover, Bush’s call on Maoists to disarm may have sounded mild. In his briefing to the media, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley went an extra mile to portray them as terrorists. Significantly, Prime Minister Singh maintained silence on their discussions on Nepal. (Perhaps an effort not to prejudice in any way the SPA-Maoist talks scheduled to begin right after Bush’s departure.)

Having arrived to elaborate on Bush’s message, Donald Camp, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia, hardly left Nepalese more enlightened. More significant were the comments of Elisabeth Millard, special assistant to the president and senior director for South and Central Asian Affairs, in a videoconference with Nepalese journalists. In arguably the most forthright articulation of the position, Millard asserted that the United States did not see Nepal from Indian lens.

Millard, who spent 17 months as the deputy chief of the American Embassy in Kathmandu before take up her new post last month, went one more step ahead. Stating that Nepal’s strategic position between China and India also enhanced its importance in global geo-politics, she said Washington would raise Nepal's issue with Beijing in their upcoming engagement.

The Bush administration, aware of China’s recent moves to fill a vacuum in Asian leadership, has assigned Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick to head a permanent delegation to talk with Beijing one a variety of international issues.

As for China, its refusal to call the Nepalese rebels by their name says a lot. That reluctance is rooted in much more than recognition of the stain it casts on the name of the Great Helmsman. Beijing is in no position to laugh off a triumph of hardcore Maoism in Nepal as an indication of the time warp its tiny southern neighbor is caught in.

This week, the annual plenary session of the National People's Congress saw the emergence of a "new socialist countryside" policy to address the rapidly expanding income gap between the countryside and China's booming coastal cities. The Chinese government is becoming more candid in acknowledging the social unrest this income gap has unleashed. The communist leadership recognizes that, for many Chinese left out of the economic miracle, a hardcore Maoist government in Nepal could easily bring back fond memories of the certitudes of the past. With Tibet, reputation and internal security at stake, China has obviously moved past Li Peng’s days.

Mainstream Muddle

Despite the royal regime’s tirade against the political parties, they will be central to any solution. Rhetorically, the SPA considers itself more than capable of charting a course without the monarchy. In reality, there is little to suggest that mainstream leaders have anything approximating a contingency plan for, say, a seven-day indisposition of the monarch.

King Gyanendra has long accused the mainstream parties of trivializing important national issues; the SPA has only lent credence to that charge. The alliance with the Maoists, the decision by the Nepali Congress and the Nepali Congress (Democratic) to drop references to the monarchy and the clamor for elections to a constituent assembly, among other things, still have not emerged as anything more as an angry reaction to the royal takeover. Antipathy alone, however justified, cannot underpin any agenda of substance the country needs.

Following the release of former prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba from prison, the prospect of a realignment of non-communist forces with the palace has gained prominence in public. The creation of such an alliance would pose its own challenge. For one thing, balancing the palace’s desire for a greater political role with the Nepali Congress’ and Nepali Congress (Democratic)’s definition of constitutional monarchy is by no means easy.

Deuba’s criticism of the SPA-Maoist accord has grabbed the headlines. Could the lengths to which he has gone to woo the army, attempting to portray it as an entity distinct from the palace, have more ominous significance?

The principal domestic and international protagonists have certainly not exhausted their moves. This could well be a spring of surprises.


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