KATHMANDU/NEW DELHI: Thumbing a nose at India, Nepal's Maoist PM Pushpa Kamal Dahal `Prachanda' sacked army chief Rukmangad Katuwal on Sunday, a move that could result in the new Maoist government toppling soon.
It's a huge setback for India, because South Block had pushed hard to retain the army chief. Prachanda's decision has made India look very silly, because all of India's highly visible pressure diplomacy - with the Indian ambassador virtually camping at Prachanda's doorstep - came to nought.
After Sunday, India is getting ready to back an "alternative" - a coalition of the Girija Prasad Koirala-led Nepali Congress, Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) and the Madhesi Janaadhikar Forum (MJF).
Soon after Katuwal's removal, four allies of the Maoists - UML, MJF, Sadbhavana Party and Communist Party of Nepal (United) - distanced themselves.
Blog: South Block screwed up BIG
With the UML pulling out of the government soon after, Prachanda's government is teetering, leaving the field open for another combination of parties to take centrestage. Prachanda had been stopped from sacking Katuwal last week because India had piled on a lot of pressure. Prachanda was smarting from the Indian pressure and determined to go ahead.
India's pressure was interpreted as interference in Nepal's internal affairs, as it was seen to be propping up the army chief personally, because he is a graduate of NDA and IMA, apart from being an adopted child of the late King Mahendra, Gyanendra's father. Sources in Delhi said the tide turned against India in Nepal decisively after deposed king Gyanendra dropped by to visit Sonia Gandhi here recently.
That cost India dear, specially as Prachanda is determined to distance himself and his nation from New Delhi. Nepalese media also reported that the army had been planning a "soft coup" if Prachanda went ahead, which stopped the government in its tracks. But that concern does not seem to have had much impact on Sunday. India's big worry in Nepal is that the passage from a democracy to a Maoist dictatorship could well become reality.
India's image and influence has taken a beating in Nepal through the current crisis. Backing a new political formation (NC-UML-MJF) in Kathmandu is no credible solution, said sources. It's unlikely to last, because no government will be able to pass anything through Parliament without the Maoists' support.
Back in New Delhi, there is a growing perception that India has messed up in Nepal. In fact, even before Sunday's act, Prachanda had indicated that the 12-point agreement worked out in Delhi between the Nepal parties should be scrapped. Sources said a new ambassador to Nepal could be a possibility after the new government comes in here.
The continuing struggle over the army chief had even prevented Prachanda from travelling to Beijing this week. Even there, India is on a different page, because it has objected to Prachanda contemplating signing a treaty of friendship with Beijing.
In any case, the gloves are now ready to come off in India's relationship with the Maoist government and relations are likely to get much worse in the foreseeable future.
Katuwal's removal, after a two-month standoff, also comes just about three months before he was due to retire. "The cabinet has decided to remove the army chief since he could not provide a satisfactory explanation to the three charges levied by the government," Maoist information and communications minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara, who is also the spokesman of the government, said after the cabinet meeting on Sunday.
Katuwal had been asked to explain why he had continued military recruitment despite the government's halt order and reinstated eight brigadier-generals who had been retired by the defence ministry. He was also rapped over the army pulling out of the National Games when Maoist combatants too decided to take part.