6-12 September 2013 #672

A Raw Deal

Anurag Acharya
RSS
New Indian Ambassador Ranjit Rae after presenting his credentials to President Yadav on Wednesday.


Indian Ambassador Jayant Prasad will probably look back at his tenure in Kathmandu and describe it as “two eventful years in which nothing happened”. Prasad arrived in 2011, following his father’s footsteps, and assumed an office that had taken some hard knocks not just in Kathmandu, but even more in New Delhi. It wasn’t the most popular job in town, to put it mildly.

So Prasad wisely kept a low profile, and didn’t get into unnecessary controversy which was probably easier for him because of his more relaxed personality. Yet, this did not mean that the hidden Indian hand in Nepali politics was not busy behind the scenes.

There are undercurrents of Indian politics that have a bearing on the neighbours: Tamil Nadu politics in Sri Lanka, West Bengal in Bangladesh and in Nepal it is the BJP’s Hindutva ideology and the open border. The fact of the matter, whether we like it or not, is that Indian influence in Nepali politics is stronger than what we, as a citizen of a sovereign nation, would like it to be.

India’s intelligence agencies are often accused of micro-managing people and institutions through unsavoury Nepali political middlemen much to the detriment of India’s own long-term national interest here. However, by and large, the Indians are as exasperated with our politics as we are, and New Delhi’s interest as well as capacity to dictate the course of politics in Kathmandu is often overstated.

Lately, there has been speculation about whether or not the elections will take place as scheduled in November, given how India’s own elections in May 2014 is already generating heat. There is some wishful thinking among India-watchers that the BJP would like Nepal’s polls to be deferred till next year. There is a feeling that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has just too much on his domestic plate to be scratching his head about Nepal.

In past few months, there has been a long queue of Nepal’s political figures officially invited to visit New Delhi and shake hands with India’s movers and shakers. Each of the leaders came back with exactly the same message: everybody in Delhi wants Nepal to hold elections at the earliest and draft its constitution.

“There is a rare convergence of views on Nepal in the Indian power centre on the need to push for elections,” Prashant Jha of The Hindu newspaper told me on the phone from Delhi this week. India has done everything it can to send positive signals about the CA elections, and pledged massive logistical support. After being caught flat-footed in 2008 when the Maoists surprised everyone by winning, New Delhi appears to be courting all political figures, just in case. The Nepali Congress has always been the favourite for India’s own Congress politicians, as seen by the redder carpet treatment that Sher Bahadur Deuba and Sushil Koirala got in Delhi compared to the others. 

Still, the NC has deep suspicions about the role of Indian handlers in forging a Maoist-Madhesi alliance in which one of their very own party colleagues played an active role. However, although the Madhesi parties may benefit from leverage in New Delhi they still derive a mandate and legitimacy from Nepal’s Tarai constituency. The Maoist-Madhesi alliance was based on federalism and inclusion, and unless the NC comes clear on the two issues, New Delhi’s backing for Madhesi parties will not really matter.

Talking to BBC Nepali Service this week, retired Indian Army General Ashok Mehta said federalism has not worked for India, and Nepal should not tread down that path either. One may be tempted to read Mehta’s words as tacit Indian position on Nepal’s contentious federalism debate, but there just isn’t enough proof to confirm that this is how official India is thinking.

India is concerned about Nepal, wants elections to take place as scheduled, and has convinced the international community including the northern neighbour about this line. It also wants the constitution drafted at the earliest, so that there is stability. However, the devil is in the details, and that doesn’t seem to interest the Indians too much. 

The new Indian Ambassador Ranjit Rae will have his work cut out. He is hitting the ground running because he has handled Nepal from Delhi before.

There will be a legacy from his predecessor, there are long-time favourites, but having dealt with all sides now India seems confident that it can negotiate its interests no matter who wins in November.

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