Thursday, March 02, 2006

Decoding The Bush-Man Message

“In Nepal, we agreed that the Maoists should abandon violence, and that the King should reach out to the political parties to restore democratic institutions.”

At one level, the three principal political players in Nepal must have been buoyed by that sentence coming from arguably the most powerful man on the planet.
At another, U.S. President George W. Bush wasted 25 words on a sentiment Nepalis have been maddeningly accustomed to. With each repetition of the reconciliation mantra, rifts among the protagonists have widened. The time has long passed when a regurgitation of who should be doing what could pass off as enlightened policy on Nepal.
If Nepal did come up during Bush’s talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi, then something of greater substance must actually have transpired. The American media might not be interested in digging deeper once Bush leaves Indian airspace. The Indian media, however, can be expected to come out with an abundance of leaks in the days head.
What seemed particularly intriguing was the silence Singh chose to maintain on Nepal during his joint news conference with Bush. The closest the Indian premier got to the kingdom was in describing how New Delhi and Washington were working together increasingly on global issues.
The historic agreement on nuclear technology American and Indian Sherpas managed to hammer out in time for the summit alone was probably not the reason why Singh chose to dispense with geography.
Perhaps the gentleman that remains in the leader of the world's most populous democracy considered it prudent not to burden Indo-Nepalese relations with needless words. What has been left unsaid, after all, over the last 13 months?
Or was there something more ominous? Bush prefaced his comment on Nepal with the following on Burma: "[W]e agree on the deplorable state of human rights in Burma, and all nations to seek the release of Aung San Suu Kyi."
Burma, one might recall, is where India has embarked on a policy of appeasement camouflaged as pragmatic engagement. Bush had nothing to lose from castigating the Burmese junta. The United States, and much of the western world, has been doing precisely that for the last 15 years, with the Burmese generals laughing it off.
India, on the other hand, has reason to be more sensitive. Once a staunch support of Aung San Suu Kyi, India has been quietly wooing the Burmese military leadership in recent years as part of its “Look” East policy.
Clearly, India is keen to engage Burma to offset China's influence in the region. New Delhi also wants Rangoon's help in combating rebels operating in the north-eastern states of India. Now, Burmese gas reserves have moved to the center of India’s energy policy.
Coming back to Nepal, was Prime Minister Singh reluctant to subvert what some perceive as a similarly subtle engagement with King Gyanendra’s regime, especially in the aftermath of Washington's scuttling of the New Delhi-anointed Seven-Party Alliance-Maoist accord?
A split-second pause by Bush's National Security Adviser Steve Hadley shed some light on the status of the Washington-New Delhi consensus on Nepal. “They [Bush and Singh] talked about Nepal and the need to both support the government against the Maoist rebels, but also -- or the Maoist terrorists -- but also the need for the King to reach out and include the political opposition.”
Hadley's transition from “rebels” to “terrorists” might have been an effort to remain consistent with the State Department (headed by Hadley’s former boss at the National Security Council Condoleezza Rice), which brands the Maoists as terrorists.
Or it may be a subtle reminder that Bush and Singh did not see eye to eye not only on the Maoists but also on the monarchy.
Such subtleties will no doubt be carefully monitored in China, as State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan prepares for his rescheduled visit to Nepal.