Biswas Baral has been associated with Republica national daily as a journalist since 2011. He oversees the op-ed pages of Republica and writes and reports on Nepal's foreign affairs. He is a regular contributor to The Wire (India).
Nepali Congress had a role in convincing New Delhi that there was no option to making Dahal prime minister again
Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal to this day rues his hasty 2009 decision as prime minister to meddle in Nepal Army and sack its chief, Rookmangud Katawal. One reason for this retrospective regret is that he made the decision against a clear indication from India not to meddle in the army, which India saw as the last bastion of resistance to Maoist dictatorship in Nepal. Dahal had already made New Delhi suspicious when he chose to make China his first foreign port of call, breaking the tradition of a new Nepali prime minister choosing India as the first foreign stop. Following his forced ouster as prime minister at India’s behest, after only nine months in office, Dahal started spewing hot venom against the ‘Big Brother’ with some abandon.
He first blamed the southern neighbor of hatching a ‘conspiracy’ to restore the discredited monarchy. Then, when it became clear that India would under no condition be ready to make him prime minister again, he went for broke: accusing India of a direct hand in the ‘murders’ of Madan Bhandari and King Birendra. India, too, seemed ready to play hardball. Its security agencies soon made public a 2009 video where the Maoist chairman can be seen boasting of how he fooled the United Nations into verifying thousands of false Maoist combatants.
But it’s not in Dahal’s nature to hold grudges, or to make permanent enemies. Over the past few years a repentant Dahal has been on a charm offensive towards India, trying to convince New Delhi that he can still be trusted. The Indians, well aware of Dahal’s unreliable nature and his tendency to flirt with the Chinese, still don’t trust him enough.
But of late it had come to mistrust KP Sharma Oli and his UML party even more. So when India saw that the only way to unseat Oli was by agreeing to make Dahal prime minister for the second time, it decided the gamble was worth it.
Nepali Congress also had a role in convincing New Delhi that there really was no other option. In any case, Dahal will be the prime minister for only nine months, after which Nepali Congress and Sher Bahadur Deuba, a trusted hand in India, will come to power.
Both Congress and Maoists have committed to India to resolve outstanding issues in Madhesh through timely constitutional amendments. More importantly, they have promised to maintain a safe distance from China.
In return, India won’t from now on raise the issue of transitional justice at international forums, or unnecessarily bring up Nepal in its bilateral statements with other countries.
With both Dahal and Deuba fearful of being implicated in war crimes, it wasn’t that hard for New Delhi to scare them into toeing its line. They worried that even if they were let off the hook by the transitional justice bodies back home, they could still be ensnared for war crimes while they were abroad. This is the subplot behind the recent Maoist pull-out of Oli government.
Oli’s ouster guaranteed, there was a sense of jubilation among Nepal handlers in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and Indian security agencies that have used the Madheshi uprising as a handy foil to secure their perceived interests in Nepal. For India was troubled by Oli’s recent overtures to China, aimed at balancing the influence to Nepal of its two giant neighbors. India would rather prefer to maintain absolute hegemony in Nepal by continuing with its self-declared ‘special relationship’.
Prime Minister Oli had courageously stood up to India’s bullying during the four and half months of border blockade. He must also be lauded for trying to reduce Nepal’s near complete dependence on India, which was only possible through greater engagement with China. Where he got it wrong was back home.
Oli was able to garner considerable public support—in fact he still does—by portraying himself as a doughty David valiantly fighting the imposing Goliath next door. But, back home, his administration also actively promoted black-marketing and cartels of all kinds.
Under Oli, Nepal now has the dubious distinction of having the highest inflation (10.5 percent) in South Asia, partly as a result of the recent, please-all, populist budget.
Post-earthquake rebuilding has gone nowhere. He also showed no inclination to address the concerns of the protesting Federal Alliance. Ultra-nationalism based on India-bashing has its limits; after nine months of inaction, his time was clearly up.
Missing the forest
But rather than congratulate themselves at how they were able to wrest back Nepal from China by successfully plotting Oli’s downfall, the Indian policymakers need to ask themselves if maintaining absolute control over Nepal is at all necessary, or even possible. Nepal-India ties are so extensive and deep that it will be impossible for any other country to displace India as the preeminent power in Nepal. China understands this, which is why it has all along told our leaders that Nepal has no option but to have best of relations with India. The Indian paranoia over China is thus unwarranted.
True, China has been scouring for stable friends in Nepal following the overthrow of monarchy in 2008. It is therefore trying to cultivate Nepali communist forces that always seem to have a sizable presence in all Nepali governments.
More than India, China fears America, which it sees as plotting to encircle it through its Asian proxies like India and Japan. But Chinese leaders are pragmatic too, a pragmatism that is reflected in its desire to extend its railway first to Nepal then on to the Buddhist sites in Bihar.
India is looking at Dahal as a transitional figure, who will shortly make way for Deuba.
This raises the question of if India is again trying to ‘micromanage’ events in Nepal. It was New Delhi that gave sanctuary to Dahal and other senior Maoist leaders during the insurgency. It was New Delhi which got him to sign the 12-point agreement in 2005 and brought his Maoist party into national mainstream. India then saw to the sacking of Dahal for insubordination and engineered a fissure in the mother Maoist party. Now the same Dahal is being promoted as the executive head. The Madheshi parties have also been similarly used by New Delhi at different times.
Moreover, at least a segment of the Indian establishment seems uncomfortable with the idea of federal and secular Nepal. Its security agencies have also cultivated radical elements in Tarai-Madhesh as a hedge against Kathmandu, just what it did in case of the warring Nepali Maoists.
All these are not signs of a mature power comfortable about its place in the region. They rather hint of an insecure country still struggling to emerge from the long shadow of its colonial masters. Prime Minister Narenda Modi has a sweeping mandate to reshape India’s foreign policy. His ‘neighborhood first’ policy will be meaningful only if he ditched the old tradition of picking individual actors to do India’s bidding in its near neighborhood and emphasized the creation of strong and inclusive democratic institutions capable of handling emerging problems on their own.