Blundering in Nepal
India’s heavy-handed interference in Nepal, which aggravated its political crisis, speaks of a colossal foreign policy failure.
Prachanda, former Nepal Prime Minister, with Manmohan Singh in New Delhi in September 2008.
Is India about to lose the huge fund of popular goodwill that it earned in Nepal over the past four years by encouraging reconciliation between the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) and other parties, by facilitating a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), by helping to bring the Maoists into the political mainstream, and by facilitating the country’s transition from a despotic monarchy to a constitutional republic?
All credible reports on recent events leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal alias Prachanda – and to a first-rate political impasse in Nepal – suggest that India is losing that goodwill, if it has not already lost it, because it is supporting discredited and reactionary forces that can only impede that transition. In the past few months, Indian policy has slid back into a deeply conservative mould, which encourages blatant interference in Nepal’s internal affairs and supports its army even as it defies civilian authority.
However much the Ministry of External Affairs pretends that the causes and effects of Prachanda’s resignation are purely “an internal affair” of Nepal, the truth is that India has been a major and partisan political player in Nepal and contributed in a big way to inflaming the confrontation between Army Chief General Rukmangad Katuwal and Prachanda’s civilian government. India used its influence with Nepal’s political parties to isolate the Maoists and negate the Prachanda Cabinet’s decision to dismiss Katuwal for gross insubordination, which was entirely the civilian government’s democratic prerogative.
In the process, India has opened up and threatened to undermine the CPA of November 2006, which it rightly – and proudly – claimed was a breakthrough and a result of its own facilitation.
New Delhi may have to regret its role in Nepal – not only because it has created a political crisis by ejecting from power a party that holds 40 per cent of the seats in the Constituent Assembly but also because it has ended up backing political forces that are untrustworthy, predominantly conservative and largely discredited in the eyes of the people. Worse, India risks losing its credibility as a state that had executed a welcome shift in 2005-08 from being an overwhelming and overweening status-quoist power bent on preserving the monarchy to a force friendly towards democracy and popular empowerment.
Contrary to the arguments of many apologists of New Delhi’s position, India’s Ambassador Rakesh Sood joined hands with his United States counterpart in lobbying for the continuation of Katuwal as the Army Chief and against the integration of the Maoists People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into the regular Nepal Army (N.A.). This was in clear violation of the CPA, which mandates such integration, the N.A.’s “democratisation”, and a reduction of its overgrown size: a 95,000-strong force in a country of 25 million people.
India, the U.S. and other important powers also condoned the grave impropriety committed by the N.A. in recently briefing foreign defence attaches on Nepal’s domestic situation. In these, it rejected the CPA and said that “the stated aim of the Maoist party still appears to be to establish a totalitarian regime, which could prove a firm base for revolutionaries with regional implications”. The N.A. accused the CPN-M of “dictatorial intent” and contended that a “united democratic alliance-led resistance from all sectors combined with international pressure is required to counter CPN-M’s hegemonic advance”.
Sood met Prachanda four times in the critical few weeks preceding his resignation. According to reliable information, he delivered an ultimatum to the elected Prime Minister that he not dismiss Katuwal or face grave consequences. Hours after the dismissal order was served upon Katuwal, President Ram Baran Yadav overturned it and asked Katuwal to continue. This made a mockery of the established convention that a non-executive president in a parliamentary democracy is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces only in titular terms, not substantive ones. He must not interfere with the Cabinet’s decisions on the appointment or dismissal of armed forces personnel.
It might be argued that Prachanda did not do enough to carry his alliance partners with him – in particular the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), or the UML, the Nepal Sadbhavna Party and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum – and allowed the confrontation with the N.A. to build up to a breaking point.
The CPN-M may have made tactical mistakes, but it is hard to argue that its allies were independent players who are invulnerable to pressure or inducements. They have a long history of succumbing to pressure and the loaves and fishes of office. The UML even joined a government handpicked by King Gyanendra just when his authority was in crisis.
At any rate, the principle of civilian supremacy over defence forces is unquestionable and paramount in democracy. The Prachanda Cabinet was perfectly within its rights to dismiss Katuwal. Indeed, it had no choice but to do so after he failed to provide a satisfactory explanation for at least three acts of defiance of civilian authority: the recruitment in February of 2,000 soldiers against the government’s wishes, the extension granted to eight brigadiers in March, and his decision in April to pull the army out of the National Games because the Maoists too would participate in them.
The General’s politics
Katuwal is no ordinary General. He was adopted as a son by Queen Ratna and former King Mahendra and raised with royal princes in Narayanhiti Palace. He has played politics in a brazen and divisive manner much of his adult life as an agent of the monarchy. For years, he wrote articles under a pseudonym, singing paeans to the monarchy and viciously attacking party after political party.
In 2002, just before King Gyanendra dismissed the elected government of Sher Bahadur Deuba, Katuwal argued that “enlightened despotism is preferable to chaotic democracy; the masses require protection from themselves”. A fortnight before the king usurped all executive powers in 2005, Katuwal wrote an article entitled “Support for King’s initiative”.
Katuwal was not a neutral player when the April Uprising of 2006, or Jana Andolan-II, broke out, supported by waves and waves of people. This was one of the most remarkable mass movements for democracy anywhere in the world. Katuwal advocated confrontation and the use of force. The official Raymajhi Commission investigating excesses against civilians recommended action against him.
That moment was allowed to pass by the Nepali Congress government led by Girija Prasad Koirala. The wages of inaction soon became apparent in the increasingly belligerent postures adopted by Katuwal after the CPN-M won an absolute majority of directly elected seats in the 2008 Constituent Assembly elections.
It is this man whom India decided to back against civilian authority, completely oblivious of the imperative of asserting civilian control over an army, which was the monarchy’s principal instrument of repression. Evidently, Indian policymakers have learnt no lessons from Pakistan and Bangladesh, where armies acquired larger-than-life roles in the early years after state formation, with disastrous long-run consequences.
Apologists for India’s decision to back Katuwal at a critical point in Nepal’s democratisation rationalised it as an unconventional response to an unconventional situation: the only way to prevent a Maoist takeover. Their argument is twofold. The Maoists were about to “capture” the army. Second, they wanted to play the “China card” by using Beijing as a countervailing power vis-a-vis India.
In support of the first premise, the apologists – including some of Nepal’s discredited political parties, especially the Nepali Congress, now in the throes of a succession struggle – cite videos that have mysteriously surfaced in Kathmandu. These show Prachanda addressing Maoist cadres. He boasts that the CPN-M greatly inflated the numbers of armed guerrillas in order to increase the scope for their integration into the N.A. and says the Maoists have not abandoned their earlier goal of taking over the Nepalese state.
Theses tapes are one and a half years old and precede the April 2008 elections. The CPN-M has not disowned them but only urged that their content be reinterpreted. One plausible explanation for Prachanda’s statements is that he was trying to placate his party’s vocal hardliners. They are close to the PLA and conditioned by the nine-year-long civil war. This is true of many militant underground movements, which undergo a transformation into parliamentary organisations committed to multi-party democracy.
Whatever the intentions of the PLA leadership, three propositions hold. First, the best way to neutralise the hardliners is to push through the PLA’s integration so that the CPN-M becomes a parliamentary entity free of the PLA’s militant pressure. Second, the actual process of integration is being discussed in a parliamentary committee of eight members, in which the Maoists are a minority of two. And third, the CPN-M has done nothing in practice that shows that it rejects or suspects the multi-party system. It is reconciled to a slow process of full democratisation and the CPA’s implementation.
It makes no sense to cast aspersions on the Maoists on the basis of presumed guilt, past political practice or the army’s prejudices. By all indications, the CPN-M has embarked on a remarkable self-transformation and must be encouraged to complete it within a cooperative climate. Ultraconservatives such as Katuwal and the army’s hardened royalists, who are loath to lose their traditional privileges or see the force downsized, are the biggest obstacle to this process. Deplorably, India has chosen to be on the side of the obstacle after having been a facilitator.
The “China card” is another bogey. The sovereign government of Nepal has every right to rework its relations with its neighbours. In the past, India paid a heavy price for rejecting that right and behaving in a paranoid way. In the late 1980s, for instance, Nepal wanted to negotiate a trade and transit treaty with India and sought to import armaments from China. India imposed a crippling blockade on the landlocked country and incurred tremendous unpopularity.
The CPN-M has never been close to the Communist Party of China (CPC). There is little ideological affinity between the two. During its rosy-eyed period, the CPN-M tried to enlist China’s support and was rebuffed. The CPC has long been hostile to the CPN-M, and during critical periods it sided with the king.
That apart, there are obvious limits to how close China will move to Nepal given India’s sensitivity on the issue. Nepal is no Pakistan, with which India has a fraught relationship, and which China will do its utmost to court. China cannot aspire to rival India in economic, political, military or cultural influence in Nepal.
Nepal and India are extremely close and special neighbours, with an open border and with freedom of transit, travel, work and residency without visas or work permits. The Nepali rupee has for years been tied to the Indian rupee at a fixed rate. Such close links are inconceivable with China. India would be extraordinarily foolhardy to be taken in by luridly exaggerated propaganda about “the China card”.
There is a larger point here. India has contributed to the present impasse in Nepal and must rectify its mistakes. Even if the UML, the Nepali Congress and others form a government with India’s backing, it will lack real authority and a democratic mandate. No Constitution-writing will be possible without two-thirds majority support for each article, which cannot be secured without the CPN-M’s support. India should therefore logically support the Maoists’ demand for Katuwal’s removal as a precondition for their joining the government and lending it stability.
However, Indian policymakers tend to be myopic about Nepal. They supported Nepal’s democratisation and last year’s Constituent Assembly elections on the assumption that the Maoists would be marginalised. In fact, National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan declared India’s preference for G.P. Koirala’s Nepali Congress. This extraordinary maladroit expression of partisan support showed total incomprehension of Nepali realities.
It was rightly seen as interference in Nepal’s internal affairs and added to the resentment many Nepalis feel at India’s supercilious and imperious attitude towards their country. Similarly, India refused to accept the CPN-M-led government’s nominee, Ram Karki, as Ambassador to New Delhi. (In 2001, Indian authorities had arrested Karki and handed him over to the Royal Nepal Army.)
Policymakers such as Narayanan operate with a Curzonian mindset, which regards India as the inheritor of the British empire at its apogee and hence as the “naturally” dominant power in the entire South Asian region to which all other nations must kowtow. They do not understand that the people of Nepal do not want their country to be the 29th state of India. The Nepalis are so proud of their autonomy that they set the official clock 15 minutes ahead of Indian Standard Time.
Nor do Indian policymakers appreciate that Nepal holds the key to India’s water security. India’s greatest rivers, including the Ganga, the Indus and the Brahmaputra, originate in the Himalayas. The India-Nepal border region holds the key to controlling the floods of the Kosi and the Brahmaputra. The development of India’s hydroelectricity potential in the north-eastern region, an important component of renewable energy – in which India has a high stake in the context of reversing climate change – is conditional upon Nepal’s cooperation.
By taking an arrogant stand towards Nepal, India will only cut its nose to spite its face. Imperial- or vice-regal-style interference in Nepal’s affairs will damage India’s interests and create new insecurities in Nepal, including a return to civil war if the Maoists are cornered and victimised. The sooner Indian policymakers realise and correct their blunder, the better.