The moment details of the seven-point agreement between Jhal Nath Khanal and the Maoists began being leaked to the local media, there was a furore even within the UML, let alone other parties like the Nepali Congress. The argument was that this amounted to retaining the Maoist PLA at government expense.
The Maoists, who had been floating this idea of a separate force for a while, had intentions of converting the PLA combatants into a paramilitary force meant to guard Nepal's borders. This obviously raised security concerns in New Delhi, because such a force on the open Indo-Nepal borders would have all kinds of implications for India, starting with support to Naxal elements here and the Gorkhaland movement, coupled with the smuggling of fake Indian currency notes among several other issues.
It was an understanding that was not acceptable to any other political formation, including the Madhesis, besides the fact that it would have had a destabilising influence on relations with India. The Maoist intentions came to the fore when they demanded the home ministry portfolio during talks on government formation. They also argued that the UML had held charge of this ministry when Prachanda was head of government. But soon it became clear that, having burnt their fingers with the armed forces last time, the Maoists were gunning for the home ministry purportedly to raise this paramilitary force in the name of reintegrating erstwhile PLA fighters.
Given that the seven-point agreement also envisaged bringing as many parties as possible into the alliance's fold, Khanal realised that having a home minister from among the Maoists would only take him and his government away from other political parties and remove any possibility of broad-based political support. He had also given his word to his Indian interlocutors that he would not act against India's security interests.
The talks, therefore, broke down over the home ministry portfolio with the Maoists squarely blaming India for being the obstacle.
Regardless of whatever other trouble, Nepal has rarely seen itself at odds with India's security concerns. It's a different matter that a lax security apparatus may have allowed anti-Indian forces to use Nepal to meet their ends, but this has never been the ethos of Nepal's own security outlook.
The Maoists, on the other hand, repeatedly seem to place themselves at odds with India's security needs: and that's the potential game-changer, a serious cause for worry. The more the Maoists position themselves against India's security priorities, the more India will be compelled to push the envelope. And that, in effect, will have the undesirable outcome of framing Nepal increasingly in security terms.
Further, the Maoists' ploy to play the China card against India has gained them nothing. Instead, it has helped justify the hardening of positions in New Delhi, which does not augur well for the relationship. Interestingly, China's primary objective in Nepal is to stop Tibetans from using it as a staging ground to quietly move in and out of Tibet; and for this it has been asking for more support from Nepal's home ministry.
Mutuality of security interests has been fundamental to Indo-Nepal relations. And even when India gave up its twin pillar approach, monarchy and multi-party democracy, and welcomed the formation of a republic with the Maoists at the helm, this principle remained vital.
However, over the past few years, the Maoists have sought to consciously undermine this security logic and sought to replace it with one that imbibes the ethos of the Maoist PLA. Anything short of that has not been acceptable to the Maoists. This explains why the integration of PLA cadre has not moved at a desirable pace; and also why it was so important for Prachanda to take on Nepal's army chief, and now to break off talks on joining the government over the UML's refusal to part with the home ministry.
Needless to say, if security priorities are not sorted, governance is bound to be the first casualty and that's why Khanal, the fourth PM in three years, has more than just a coalition to handle.
Reprinted with permission from The Indian Express