Breakdown of trust between Kathmandu and New Delhi

225.thumbnailBy M.K. Bhadrakumar

The cancellation of the visit by the Nepalese President Bidhya Devi Bhandari to India on Monday; the abandonment of the idea of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attending the ‘Buddh Purnima’ in Lumbini on May 21; Kathmandu’s decision to recall its ambassador in New Delhi – the weekend is packed with dramatic developments that have deeply wounded the India-Nepal relationship.

Nepal joins Pakistan, China and the Maldives as the problematic relationships that the Modi government has failed to sort out. India today has relatively problem-free relationship only with three out of its seven neighbors.

And yet, in Modi’s foreign-policy compass, as he pledged while on the 2014 campaign trail, India’s neighbors take the top priority.

The last weekend’s developments in India-Nepal relations expose that what was perceived up until recently as the main bone of contention between New Delhi and Kathmandu – constitutional rights of Madhesi communities of Indian origin living in Nepal – is more a symptom than the real problem.

Simply put, the real problem lies in the fact that the new government in Nepal formed last October under Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli is not only not under India’s control but is pushing ahead with an independent foreign policy.

Call it by any name, the Indian agenda will only be viewed in the regional and world opinion as aimed at ‘regime change’ in Kathmandu with a view to ensure that the Nepalese political leadership will remain supplicants to New Delhi. It makes India seem a regional bully.

The backdrop of the weekend’s developments has been an abortive coup attempt by the leader of the pro-India Nepali Congress leadership of Sher Bahadur Deuba to overthrow the Oli government soon after his return to Kathmandu after a week-long visit to New Delhi.

Deuba promised Nepali Congress support for a new coalition to be led by Maoist leader ‘Prachanda’ provided the latter withdrew support for Oli’s government (which depends heavily on support from Maoists for survival.)

Interestingly, a close aide to ‘Prachanda’, Krishna Bahadur Mahara, also visited New Delhi in April immediately after Deuba’s consultations with his Indian mentors.

Initially, ‘Prachanda’ took the bait and threatened to withdraw support for Oli’s coalition government, but he has had a rethink when it transpired that his own party militated against such a move that could play into Indian hands.

This, in turn, has given Oli the respite to ‘counter-attack’. He struck in four directions in the weekend:

  • One, Oli has conceded the Maoists’ long-standing demand for amnesty for their violent crimes during their decade-long insurgency from 1996 to 2006;
  • Two, he pre-empted any Indian attempt to get through to the Nepali president during her week-long visit to India and encourage her to be a counterweight to him; and,
  • Three, Oli sacked the Nepalese ambassador to India (a political appointee belonging to the pro-India Nepali Congress) who Oli suspects has worked as a ‘fifth column’ for New Delhi; and,
  • Four, Oli ordered local body elections by the end of the year, where his strident nationalism tapping into the ‘anti-India’ sentiments will help consolidate his political base.

Suffice to say, the weekend developments highlight a complete breakdown of trust between Kathmandu and New Delhi. Oli believes that Modi government is systematically destabilizing his government to have it replaced by a new pro-Indian set-up that includes Nepali Congress as a constituent, while the Modi government has apparently written Oli’s political obituary already.

Indeed, an editorial comment by Pioneer, a pro-government daily newspaper from New Delhi which reflects the thinking in the ruling circles, exudes the confidence that the ‘regime change’ agenda vis-à-vis Oli is in top gear, even if he won Round 1 by the skin of his teeth. The editorial says with absolute certainty:

  • It is now only a matter of time before the KP Sharma Oli Government in Nepal is shown the door… As soon as the issue is sorted out, the incumbent Government will fall. This is more so because the (pro-India) Nepali Congress, now in opposition, is also determined to see the end of the Oli dispensation… ‘Prachanda’ is eager to have another shot at prime ministership”.

The above authoritative opinion suggests that a game of musical chairs has begun in Kathmandu politics where New Delhi will be the master of ceremony, orchestrating the fun and frolic.

But then, is it in India’s interests to create political instability in Nepal? Or, is Oli’s exit going to serve India’s interests?

The point is, a tsunami of ‘anti-Indian’ feelings is sweeping over Nepal, which is an accumulation through decades of flawed Indian policies, and it seems improbable that any elected government in Kathmandu reflecting the popular will can afford to be seen kowtowing to India.

For India, which is coping with a million mutinies at home and struggling with its own development agenda, a stable external environment ought to be the number one priority.

But sections within the Indian establishment and the ruling elites may be calculating that it is a cost-effective way of keeping Nepal in the Indian orbit by simply destabilizing that country and keeping it weak and subservient.

They probably feel bullish that Indian agencies can easily finance the political horse-trading in Kathmandu, and are also not lacking in experience to undermine and overthrow elected governments. (Ironically, in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand bordering Nepal, a similar steamy drama of political chicanery is right now playing out.)

However, does it pay to play this game? Perhaps, there is no one who is more entitled to answer this question than Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar (who, interestingly, wanted to accompany Modi to attend the religious ceremony in Lumbini.)

It is the bordering state of Bihar which will ultimately feel the trauma of the deepening instability in next-door Nepal, which makes Kumar a stakeholder in India’s Nepal policies.

Modi had campaigned in the 2014 poll for the border states playing a lead role in the making of India’s regional policies. But like many good things he promised two years ago, he has forgotten this campaign promise also.

Or else, India’s Nepal policies should not have been decided exclusively in New Delhi. The decent thing should have been to consult Nitish Kumar and even seek his help to stabilize India-Nepal relations.

On the contrary, Modi government’s regional policies date back to the seventies and eighties – ‘muscular’ and highly centralized, and doing things the John Wayne way.

(This article was originally published in Asia Times Online on May 8, 2016. Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.)

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