Indian elections and Nepal

Published On: March 25, 2019 01:25 AM NPT By: P Kharel

No matter which party rules from New Delhi, India’s basic foreign policy is generally consulted and coordinated with the main opposition

Just about the time India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi looked vulnerable, with his popularity rapidly declining, exchange of aerial strikes across the border with Pakistan seems to have reversed the slide. He looks like being back on the track in buoying the prospects of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the seven-phase general elections slated for April-May. At least that is what psephologists have been indicating one after another these past few weeks.

Kashmir has been a bone of contention since 1947 when India and Pakistan gained independence after Britain decided to shed its colonial rule over these territories. Kashmir’s Hindu King Hari Singh, cornered by the two giant states belligerently competing for absorbing his kingdom, wilted and opted for Hindu majority India. This sowed the seed of conflict over an area constituting India’s only Muslim-majority state in a country where Muslims account for about 14 percent of its total population of 1.25 billion. 

In traumatic and tragic aftereffects of the region’s partition, India occupied south and eastern parts of Kashmir constituting 45 percent of the total territory while 35 percent of the territory forms Azad Kashmir under Pakistani supervision. The remaining 20 percent, known as Akshai Chin, has become part of China. Since the summer of 1989 alone, 70,000 lives have been lost in the course of popular protests that New Delhi terms insurgency activity. Most of them were killed when Congress party headed the union government at the center. 

Current context
Pollsters give BJP-led National Democratic Alliance between 270 to 300 seats in a 545-seat Lok Sabha. Two of those seats are, however, filled by government nominees to represent “Anglo-Indian” community, a euphemism for Christian community in the secular republic of India. 

Modi gained from the February incident of air strikes at Balakot at a time when scams had begun gathering steam against the government’s complicity or oversight. So did his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan. In the aftermath of his decision to return an Indian air force pilot arrested after his aircraft was shot down in Pakistani territory, some groups proposed Khan’s name for the Nobel Peace Prize. In deference to the actual ground reality, the former international cricketing star rejected the idea.   

Rahul does not have the aura of his great grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, grandmother Indira Gandhi or even father Rajiv Gandhi, who all led their party to parliamentary majority. Pretensions of a reluctant prince proved too costly for Rahul because of his desire to take over the reins of government in a blaze of electoral glory. Instead, the party suffered a series of demoralizing defeats. 

Rahul lost a big opportunity for ten years by keeping the meek and “Accidental Prime Minister” Man Mohan Singh to warm the seat for him. What he got in the process was the worst ever performance by the Congress, which was founded in 1885. His mother Sonia has managed to hold the party together even as it began to weaken since the 1991 assassination of her husband and ex-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. 

The Gandhi family weighed Man Mohan Singh, an economist and former finance minister with no mass base, as a safe bet, bypassing the shrewd and ambitious Bengali Babu Pranab Mukherjee, to keep the prime ministerial seat warm until the scion of the Gandhi family decided to step in. BJP’s veteran leader LK Advani described Singh as independent “India’s weakest prime minister” who was under the beck and call of his benefactors. Singh’s such public reputation drastically eroded the popular base of the country’s oldest party.

Success streak 
Nehru led his party to successive election triumphs until he died in 1964. He did equally well at state assembly polls. His daughter Indira Gandhi also recorded a string of successes from 1966 to 1977 and, again, in 1979. The cause of Indira’s crushing defeat was a hurriedly cobbled Janata Party comprising a disparate group of several parties whose prime focus was to unseat the dictator who imposed a state of emergency (1975-77) purely to stay in power after a court verdict nullified her 1971 election to the Lok Sabha. 

But Indira manipulated a split in the Morarji Desai-led Janata Party, paving way for mid-term polls and enabling her to stage a stunning comeback in the 1979 snap polls. Indira’s younger son Sanjay was the mastermind behind the Singh deserting the Desai government. Singh had with him only 64 MPs but was, as he later confessed, fired by a “life-long desire” to become the country’s premier at least once. When the promised support from Congress did not materialize, a denigrated and dismayed Singh resigned 24 days after his appointment without facing the house. 

History at times repeats. In 1990, the National Front minority government headed by Janata Dal’s VP Singh collapsed when the prime minister’s own party member Chandra Shekhar suffered from the Charan Singh fever. He had with him barely a tenth of the total House members. Rajiv Gandhi had promised him to support but within seven months announced withdrawal of support on the flimsiest of excuse over a couple of intelligence personnel the government posted outside his residence. 

BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee managed to draw support from smaller parties and head a coalition cabinet from 1998 to 2004. This put an end to the Congress-circulated myth that only the oldest party with a clear majority could deliver a stable government. In June 1984 during Indira Gandhi’s comeback tenure, the army was involved in a bloody siege of the Sikh community’s holiest Golden Temple in Amritsar. Enraged by the raid, the prime minister’s two Sikh bodyguards, in an October morning, mowed her down with sten guns. 

Nepali perspective
For Nepal, non-Congress governments were, outwardly, more sympathetic and less aggressive in their pursuit of placing this country under their thumb. But whichever combine was in New Delhi’s seat of power, the substance was similar. Since the days of Nehru and his home minister Ballav Bhai Patel, New Delhi has been eyeing for a pliant Nepal in defense and foreign policy matters.

Nehru pestered the first “commoner prime minister” Matrika Prasad Koirala after the 104-year-old Rana oligarchy to “coordinate” its foreign policy with Indian government for reasons of “mutual strategic interest”. As Crown Prince, officiating as head of state during King Tribhuvan’s protracted illness and treatment abroad, and when he formally ascended to the throne after his father’s demise, King Mahendra did not allow that to happen.  

During 1979 election campaign, Indira Gandhi bared her teeth to downgrade rival parties that had defeated the Congress in 1977. She fumed: “Even Nepal and Bhutan are rearing their heads against India.” In 1984, Rajiv Gandhi won an unprecedented three-fourths majority in what proved to be for him a one-election wonder generated by a massive public sympathy wave in the wake of his mother’s brutal assassination. 

Five years later voters reduced the Congress to less than half of what it had obtained previously. Consequently, Janata-Dal leader VP Singh headed a minority National Front government. During the poll campaign, Singh charged that the Congress government was “antagonizing Nepal without any reason”. On coming to power, he did nothing to improve ties with Nepal because of his formidable party colleague Chandra Shekhar’s intervention to prolong the economic blockade on Nepal until King Birendra appointed Nepali Congress leader KP Bhattarai the interim prime minister.  

In the new millennium, Man Mohan Singh, as prime minister, visited more than 90 countries during his ten years in office. Yet, Nepal was deliberately skipped as a slight. Sections of Nepali elite speculate that they might witness a massive political shift in Nepal if Modi’s party, and not the Congress, retains power in the impending elections. Naive as that premise is, the fact remains: No matter which party rules from New Delhi, India’s basic foreign policy is generally consulted and coordinated with the main opposition. 

In Nepal’s case, too, the tradition is being maintained. BJP is strongly believed to have taken Congress into confidence regarding India’s changed approach to Nepal, also in deference to China’s views on events in Nepal that borders Tibet, considered as China soft underbelly. When in the opposition, Jaswant Singh reiterated it to his friends among RPP leaders. Modi’s Home Minister Raj Nath Singh is also confident that the main opposition in New Delhi is convinced on the incumbent government’s Nepal policy.

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