Sunday, July 19, 2009

All Politics Is External

With Egypt having given Nepal some diplomatic wriggle room, Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal can now grapple with the country’s priorities as he steps across the southern border next month. Since China is only an observer at the Non-Aligned Movement, Nepal could hold a session with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the Sharm El Sheikh summit without any Chinese official higher than vice-foreign minister available to sniff around. This circumstance must have satisfied New Delhi’s us-first credo of hospitality.
Having burned its fingers with the Maoists, New Delhi has carefully desisted from putting its full faith and credit in the Nepal government. By portraying the Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) leader as our first prime minister of Indian heritage, New Delhi took out an early insurance policy. The Indian media has done much injustice to Nepal the man – and to accuracy – by playing up that story line. But, then, Nepal knows better than to complain, even if Girija Prasad Koirala and Krishna Prasad Bhattarai have gotten a pass.
Oddly enough, India’s official and unofficial near-term policies on Nepal seem to be converging. New Delhi’s wants to allow political events in to take their course. As the facilitator of the 12-point agreement between the mainstream parties and the Maoists – and by extension the peace process – India is understandably vexed at the prospect of the crucial constitutional deadline being missed.
Far too many players have arrived in Nepal since April 2006 to spoil the game, but New Delhi retains the ability to come up with creative ways to nudge the process forward. Should all that fail, the possibility of reversing gear persists. Revival of the 1990 constitution – and all that entails – has certainly not entered the realm of impossibility.
What about China? Beijing refused to bail out Nepal in 1814-16 and between 1832-1842 despite clear treaty obligations. King Birendra and Gyanendra personally recognized the limits of Chinese friendship. (Their father, Mahendra, was shrewder in that he roped in the Soviets at the first stirrings of the Moscow-Beijing rupture.) The Maoists had come to inherit a dismal legacy. The Indians initially did not read too much into Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s northern tilt.
But the Chinese as well as the Maoists proved far too unreadable. As former Indian ambassador K.V. Rajan conceded recently, the Indians weren’t worried by the Maoists’ assiduous cuddle of the Chinese. It was Beijing’s embrace of the former rebels that was too stifling for New Delhi. Regardless of whether Beijing actually egged on Dahal to fire Army chief Gen. Rookmangad Katuwal – as the Indians alleged – our former rebels appeared to ready to profit from that perception. Dahal’s protestations that all those Chinese delegations came uninvited came too late. But, then, he couldn’t really have made such a declaration while in power, could he?
The Peace and Friendship Treaty now looks like a dud. But how many of us really saw that coming? The Chinese draft continues to cast a long shadow on that extradition treaty with India. The Koshi High Dam or any other water-resources project – among the bedrock Indian interests in Nepal – would have to overcome China’s own river diversification projects.
Against great odds, they built the Qinghai-Tibet train over permafrost. Diverting precious liquid would seem far more urgent. And perhaps easier, too, when you consider how the Chinese publicize scientific gains on a strictly need-to-know basis.
Nepal’s talks in New Delhi on the peace process, therefore, can be expected to transcend your usual internal-external categorization. Judging by the last minute breakthroughs our peace process has been able to score, the constitution may yet come out in time. But it is more likely to be, in UML chairman Jhal Nath Khanal’s recent revealing words, a compromise document. More attuned to the needs of external stakeholders than our own, he might have added.