US support for India’s Nepal policy.. may only be a smokescreen

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The first time Americans publicly accepted they followed India’s lead was back in 2005, hot on heels of King Gyanendra’s coup

The Americans must look back at the good old days under King Mahendra with not a little nostalgia. As a part of Mahendra’s strategy of diversifying away from India, the Americans were welcomed to open an embassy in Kathmandu in 1959. This was a major coup for Uncle Sam. The small Himalayan country, strategically located between India and China, would be the perfect location to monitor the activities of the two rising global powers, especially the communist China.

How have things changed! After the imposition of the Indian economic embargo, the third since 1969, their convenient outpost in the shade of the Himalayas is no longer secure. For Nepal as a nation-state today faces an existential threat. Didn’t the Americans anticipate this? If they did, why did they allow India to set the agenda in Nepal?

The first time Americans publicly accepted that they followed India’s lead in Nepal was back in 2005, hot on the heels of King Gyanendra’s February 1st coup. Talking to Indian reporters on February 22nd, David C Mulford, American ambassador to India at the time, had said the US wanted India to play a “leading role” in the process of restoration of democracy in Nepal. He said the US would fully support New Delhi’s efforts to bring the mainstream political parties and the (then warring) Maoists to the talks table.

Since that time, as defense and security cooperation between India and the US has deepened, the feeling in Kathmandu is that the Americans are more than ever willing to accept India’s leadership in Nepal, the traditional Indian ‘backyard’.

Recent events only buttress this belief. The new US ambassador to Nepal, Alaina B. Teplitz, was recently asked by The Kathmandu Post if the Americans viewed Nepal through the Indian prism. “After 70 years of close relationship with Nepal, you can give us credit for having an independent perspective,” she replied. “Nobody is dictating our foreign policy,” she added.

In the same interview she reiterated the American position that the constitution was a huge milestone, “the source of rights for Nepalis” and “a critically important step forward.” That interview, published on November 23rd, perhaps didn’t go down well in some quarters, and certainly not in the gilded halls of Lainchaur.

As if to smooth ruffled feathers, the new American envoy then penned an op-ed for Republica on November 25th. While still welcoming the new constitution, Teplitz was now at pains to emphasize how “the current US constitution was amended 11 times in the first six years.” She went on to note that it had taken “200 years of court cases” to shape the implementation of the American constitution. Constitution making, said Teplitz, “should be a dynamic process, constantly striving to be more representative, inclusive.”

In other words, the Americans wanted to remove the misconception that they had wholeheartedly supported the new constitution and their real position was no different to the Indian stand—that the new charter had serious loopholes, which could only be plugged by timely amendments.

America seems to understand the Indian anxieties over the presence of ‘third powers’—understood as any big power other than India and China, the two neighbors—in Nepal, the heart of old Indian ‘sphere of influence’. In the grander scheme of things, the Americans reckon, they have far too much to lose by alienating India—among their most reliable democratic allies in Asia with which to counter China—over ‘small fries’ like Nepal.

Indian cooperation became even more important after the Obama administration in 2012 declared that the American foreign policy would henceforth ‘pivot to Asia’. India would be one of the fulcrums of the pivot, according to the then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “The relationship between India and America,” she wrote in Foreign Affairs, “will be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century, rooted in common values and interests…” The US, she said, was making a strategic bet on India’s future and she believed that “India’s greater role on the world stage will enhance peace and security.” And so, the thinking goes, the Americans have been increasingly inclined to let India set the agenda in the Indian subcontinent.

So while the rest of the world welcomed the promulgation of new constitution on September 20th, the Americans, keenly aware of Indian sensitivities, kept mum. India, for its part, put out a statement on the same day where it ‘noted’ the promulgation in Nepal of a constitution. “We are concerned that the situation in several parts of the country bordering India continues to be violent,” the statement noted. It then urged that issues on which there are differences should be resolved through dialogue in a manner that would enable “broad-based ownership and acceptance.”

This was shortly followed by another Indian statement on September 21st: “We have consistently argued that all sections of Nepal must reach a consensus on the political challenges confronting them,” the statement said. In other words, there needed to be absolute consensus in favor of the new charter.

Only after carefully gauging Indian reaction did the Americans issue a statement of their own, on September 22nd, where they noted the “constitution as an important milestone in Nepal’s democratic journey” but added that: “The government must continue efforts to accommodate the views of all Nepalis.” Again the Indian and the American reaction seemed coordinated.

By contrast, China on September 21st wholeheartedly welcomed the new constitution and put the onus on resolving the crisis in Nepal on the protesting political parties who needed to “bear in mind the fundamental interests of their country and the people.” No ambiguities here. But in diplomacy ambiguities can be deliberate, sinister even.

It would be simplistic to believe the canny Americans would so easily outsource their Nepal policy to India. Above all, they would like to continue to maintain their listening post in Nepal, unimpeded. The prospect of (still farfetched) full-fledged Indian takeover of Nepal would be a nightmare for the ever-growing American surveillance state. What they ideally want is a relatively stable, Oman-like soft dictatorship, not unlike Mahendra’s Nepal, from where they can safely spy on Messrs Xi and Modi. The US support for India’s Nepal policy, in the end, may only be a smokescreen.

Courtesy: Republica Daily, Kathmandu 

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