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Nepal's floundering democracy cosies up to China

December 15, 2009 15:35 IST

It is only natural for China to exploit the messy situation in Nepal and seek to supplant Indian influence and goodwill, writes Gurmeet Kanwal.

Strife-torn Nepal's fledgling democracy is at a strategic crossroads today. Relations with India have deteriorated, China's footprint in Nepal is increasing rapidly and the political situation is relatively more unstable than it has been for the last three years.

Whether or not the country will survive the vicissitudes of its complex and sometimes violent power politics depends on whether its political leaders can rise to the challenge of putting an end to their petty squabbling and whether the Maoists decide to act as a genuinely nationalist force rather than a motley array of power hungry guerrillas who prefer to let their guns do the talking. 

The first decade of the 21st century has been a tumultuous one for Nepal. Two years of brutal repression by a despotic regime headed by a King who believed in Louis XIV's dictum 'L'etat, c'est moi' (I am the State) were followed by the Nepalese people's short but intense agitation that led to the restoration of parliamentary democracy in April 2006. The people's spring revolution was nothing short of spectacular in the breadth of its reach and the depth of its significance. Faced with fearless crowds creeping up on the Narayanhitty Palace, King Gyanendra was finally forced to throw in the towel and give up his kingdom and most of his ill-gotten riches.

Delighted by their victory over totalitarianism, the people of Nepal welcomed the transfer of power to the Seven Party Alliance headed by octogenarian Prime Minister G P Koirala, despite the Nepalese politicians having lost the people's confidence many years ago. The Maoists, whose writ ran over large swathes of rural Nepal, declared a cease-fire but set tough conditions for elections to a new Constituent Assembly, including the release of their cadres from jails in Nepal and India. The honeymoon was short-lived.

Fissures soon began to appear among the constituents of the SPA over their approach to bringing the Maoists into the mainstream. Though elections to the Constituent Assembly were held and Prachanda became the prime minister, the government did not survive long enough to successfully draw up a Constitution that reflects a broad national consensus. The Himalayan Kingdom, which King Gyanendra had treated as his personal fiefdom, continues to be in a royal mess.

India's "twin-pillar" doctrine of supporting multi-party democracy under the rubric of constitutional monarchy had lulled the King into complacence and angered the Nepalese people. While India has wisely refrained from interfering in the internal affairs of its northern neighbour, it has made it clear that it supports democracy.

India is unlikely to countenance a Maoist take over through the barrel of the gun. There are apprehensions in India that the situation in Nepal may lead to anarchy, or the country may embark on a course that has adverse ramifications for India. Continuing instability in Nepal will further compound India's vitiated external environment. 

Despite serious misgivings about the rapidly worsening security situation in Nepal, India did not take any steps to institute any border control measures. The open India-Nepal border and the seamless integration of the economies are monuments to the concept of 'two nation-states but one people'.  The fundamentals of this relationship are based on geopolitical realties, shaped over several centuries by historical, cultural, social and economic interdependence.  However, in recent years, some forces have emerged who are trying to subvert the geopolitical truisms that bind India and Nepal at the bidding and under the influence of external players. Amongst these forces, the Maoists are the most diabolical. During their days in power, they allowed undue Chinese influence to pervade Nepal's economy and infrastructure development.

If peace in Nepal remains elusive, it is mainly due to the intransigence of the Maoist leadership which has unambiguously enunciated its ultimate objective of turning Nepal into a totalitarian communist regime. They refuse to abandon their so-called revolution, and they refuse to shun violence. They are also devious in their dealings and cannot be trusted to honour their commitments.

It was discovered recently that in a speech on January 2, 2008, Prachanda had revealed how the Maoist leadership had inflated the numbers of the PLA soldiers almost five-fold and how the Maoists planned to capture the state and the national army. Clearly, the Maoist objective is to seize power -- either through the ballot box, if that is possible, or through the gun and impose an ultra-Marxist regime on Nepal.

Nepal is in a state of flux today and the messy situation is not getting better, even if it is not getting worse. The Constituent Assembly is tottering on the verge of collapse. Institutions of governance have been intimidated and circumscribed by those very forces which are responsible for their impartial and effective functioning. The internal power balance has been disturbed.

The chasm between the hill people and the people of Terai, predominantly Madhesis, is growing by the day. This new dimension in the political and security landscape of Nepal has been engendered by the demise of the monarchy and the ascendance of the Maoists who have no base in the Terai region.

The present internal dynamics of Nepal impinge directly on India, given the virulent anti-India rhetoric and antagonistic disposition of the Maoist leadership and the indifference of the mainstream political parties. The fact that the Maoist leadership has umbilical cords with the Naxalite-Maoists in India is well known and has been documented.

The Indian establishment cannot, therefore, root out the Maoist menace from its soil as long as the Maoists exercise undue influence in Nepal. This poses a formidable strategic and diplomatic challenge for India.

Under such circumstances it is only natural for China to exploit the situation and seek to supplant Indian influence and goodwill in Nepal. Not to be left behind, Pakistan's ISI has also gone into an overdrive mode in Nepal. The abysmal state of governance makes the country an attractive haven for terrorists and criminal syndicates.

On the external front, China is engaged in forging a new anti-India partnership with Nepal. It has bagged a large number of infrastructure construction projects, including the controversial Sikta barrage in Agaiya district of Nepal close to the Indian border. Over a dozen high-level Chinese delegations have visited Nepal over the last two years. A new friendship treaty is also in the offing.

The Nepalese authorities have allowed China to set up Mandarin language teaching shops on the Indo-Nepal border. Classes in these shops are not open to India students. Chinese agents have also been observed carrying out surreptitious reconnaissance of the Indian border at several points. China's newfound affinity towards Nepal and Nepal's quest for equidistance between India and China are not in India's interest.

A full-fledged civil war in Nepal that results in a Maoist take over would be immensely detrimental to India's national security interests. Even though such a prospect is improbable at present, the present situation in Nepal does not generate any confidence in the international community about the Nepalese political leaders' ability to ride the storm and steer their country's transformation to a representative multi-party democracy successfully.

In order to understand the present situation and make sense of the confusion and commotion that characterises present-day Nepal, the government must commission a study by a suitable think tank. The think tank should be asked to undertake field work to carry out a realistic assessment of the present situation so as to identify the emerging political, military and socio-economic trend lines and should make recommendations for long-term policy. It should also review the effectiveness of the Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship signed in 1950 in the changed circumstances.

Gurmeet Kanwal is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.

Gurmeet Kanwal