Ties between Kathmandu and New Delhi have not been this low in a long, long time. The intimate contact between people on the two sides of the open border has not always been reflected in the way the two governments and power elites interact. Indeed, differences and misunderstandings have characterised the relationship in the past, often instigated by the arrogance of the regional superpower and an equal and opposite feeling of incapacity among Kathmandu’s politicians and bureaucrats. This time around, however, the misunderstanding is bordering on antagonism, and a fundamental shift seems to be underway in the relationship.
The 1 February royal coup came as a bolt out of the blue for the Indian establishment. Despite his reported assurances to Indian diplomats, among others, that he had no intention of assuming absolute control, the monarch went ahead and did just that with his takeover that fateful Tuesday morning. South Block’s ‘twin pillar’ policy on Nepal, of supporting constitutional monarchy and multiparty democracy, suddenly seemed to be without basis. New Delhi’s seniormost diplomats let it be known that if a choice was to be made between the people and the king, India would go with the former. India had clearly decided that its interest in a stable Nepal was better served by backing a disorderly multiparty system than a controversial monarchy. This, fortunately, coincides with the popular will in Nepal.
Soon after 1 February, India took on the role of ‘coordinating’ the response of the U.S and UK towards the Kathmandu regime. The three countries together make up the main suppliers to the Royal Nepal Army in its battle with the Maobaadi insurgents, and it would have been nothing less than galling for the royal regime to see the role given New Delhi. Confronted by South Block’s stance, the king has tried to influence Indian policy by appealing to India’s erstwhile royals who still populate the upper echelons of Indian politics, but it has not gone beyond a little bit of an ear from Indian Foreign Minister K Natwar Singh, himself of princely lineage. The king’s hopes of using the Hindutva lobby in his favour as a ‘Hindu king’ seems similarly not to have borne fruit.
In fact, and ironically, the best hope for King Gyanendra comes from the Indian police and intelligence agencies, who dislike the Maobaadi so intensely that they would like the resumption of arms supplies that were suspended after the coup. For now however, India’s Manmohan Singh continues to listen to the foreign office on Nepal policy rather than to his National Security Advisor.
Meanwhile, incidents and accidents continue to mark the steadily deteriorating relationship. It did not help Prime Minister Singh that in Jakarta on 23 April, King Gyanendra blurted before a television camera what is said to have been a gentleman’s understanding on resumption of arms assistance in return for promised democratisation. Back in Kathmandu, bilateral ties saw a further dip when the Nepali Foreign Ministry called the Indian ambassador in for a reprimand. Kathmandu tried to openly play the ‘China card’ to balance off India’s contrariness, but Beijing proved reluctant. Even while the Indian Army chief J J Singh was trying to argue for resuming arms supplies to its ‘brother army’ in Nepal, the latter decided to alert the world to the problems with its India-supplied ‘Insas’ combat rifles. While there have been reports of the gun malfunctioning in pitched battle, it appeared inopportune ridiculing your largest supplier of arms and ammunition.
While all this was going on, the Indian government seemed to be re-conceptualising its own approach towards the Maoists. Seeing the inability of the RNA to effectively take on the rebels even after seven months of direct rule by the king as ‘Supreme Commander-in-Chief’, as well as taking into account the royal palace’s continuing hostility towards the mainstream political parties, New Delhi made as if not to notice while Maobaadi leaders move about in India and hold confabs with representatives of Nepal’s political parties. Even though the Maobaadi continue to spout anti-India rhetoric on occasion, New Delhi seems to harbour hopes that its sheer willpower can force the rebels to sit for talks with whoever is ready in Kathmandu when the time comes.
Remembering the blockade
It is not that differences have not been a constant between Nepal and India, and there have been several low points in history before this. The last time a king took over in Nepal, with Tribhuvan’s son and Gyanendra’s father Mahendra dismissing the elected government of B P Koirala in 1960, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru told the Indian Parliament that the royal step was a ‘setback to democracy’. The wily Mahendra king reacted by seeking to construct a notion of Nepali nationalism based on a good dose of anti-Indianism. In the context of the Sino-India war of 1962, Mahendra played his ‘China card’ and India came on line.
The Indo-Nepal relationship hit the bottom in 1989, when New Delhi acted the regional bully and used Kathmandu’s import of Chinese weaponry to slap an economic blockade on Nepal. Such was the international fallout of this action against a land-locked LDC that New Delhi has surely not contemplated such adventures since. The difference between then and now, perhaps, is that India’s Nepal’s policy has coincided with the interests of the Nepali people. From what we know, this policy hangs on a knife’s edge with enough ‘forces’ in India willing to forget about democracy in Nepal and simply support the king, or support the king in order to crush the Maobaadi. The first option would be unprincipled and the second impractical. India must stay the course.
There is no saying how this huge trust deficit between the Southasian giant and the currently unstable northern neighbour will be resolved. With King Gyanendra’s well-known proclivity to himself ‘stay the course’ even in the face of accelerating defeat, it is likely that the Nepal-India relationship will have to wait out the current power struggle within Nepal between the autocratic monarchy and the forces for total, untrammeled democracy. Following a hopefully positive outcome, the relationship can then be expected to settle down, back to its slightly unstable keel.