Last week Oli became the first Nepali leader to meet with Pranab Mukherjee, the newly elected president of India. Our political chatterati has made much of the perception that Mukherjee has remained the driver of New Delhi’s Nepal policy for close to a decade.
Indeed, during one of the tensest phases of the relationship, Mukherjee straddled the contradictions that have come to comprise India’s policy toward Nepal.
As minister of defense during King Gyanendra’s takeover in February 2005, Mukherjee was part of India’s military-national security establishment that counseled continued engagement with the palace.
Then, Mukherjee felt that New Delhi should not read too much into the Chinese arms supplies to the royal regime and most preferably consider it an aberration. The more important task was to ensure that Nepal’s raging Maoist insurgency did not inspire Indian adherents of the Great Helmsman into wallowing in a wider South Asian wasteland.
When the UN oil-for-food scandal claimed Foreign Minister Kunwar Natwar Singh, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took over the portfolio briefly before bringing in Mukherjee. As foreign minister, Mukherjee took a 180 and espoused his new institution’s hardening posture of lining up the Maoists and the Seven Party Alliance against the monarchy. Once that process was under way, Mukherjee took credit in an interview with Al Jazeera TV for having succeeded in democratizing the Nepali Maoists.
Could all this suggest that Mukherjee is a man easily molded by the institution he sits atop at a given moment? That perception would hardly comport with the accolades Mukherjee has been receiving for his keen political skills and administrative capabilities.
As to the first, Maila Baje clearly remembers the aftermath of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in late October 1984. Her son, Rajiv, general secretary of the All India Congress Committee, was away from the capital on a tour accompanied by then-finance minister Mukherjee.
On their flight back to the capital upon receiving the horrific news, according to reports published then, Mukherjee had spent much time explaining to Rajiv how he (Mukherjee) should be named Indira’s successor because of seniority and experience.
Given the political alignments prevailing in New Delhi, the suddenness of the turn of events, and the general course of developments following Indira’s younger son Sanjay’s death in a flying accident, Mukherjee might have just shut up. Perhaps his ‘political skills’ simply got the better of him.
As for administrative capabilities, it took Mukherjee another assassination to try to get back where he had left off. Throughout his premiership and subsequent mortal existence, Rajiv appeared to distrust Mukherjee. Yet a man of such vaunted administrative capabilities should have been able to claw his way back to the inner Congress core.
Even after Rajiv’s assassination, midway through an election that resulted in a Congress triumph, Mukherjee lost out. The key contenders for the premiership thought it prudent to bring back P.V. Narasimha Rao, whom Rajiv had packed into retirement, and resume their battles later.
During the wily Rao’s premiership, when there was a palpable effort to keep Rajiv’s widow Sonia at bay, Mukherjee started playing both sides, as deputy chairman of the Planning Commission and briefly foreign minister. Once Sonia’s stars rose in 2004, Mukherjee carefully played the role of mentor to both the new face of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and Prime Minister Singh, a one-time protégé.
This is a long-winded way of explaining why Nepali politicians most susceptible to getting a thrill up their legs should back off a bit. Mukherjee is but one man – in Professor S.D. Muni’s recent words – in a “balance of forces among multiple stakeholders in India’s Nepal policy [who] are diverse and varied and their positions often mutually incompatible”.
For now, though, Mukherjee, like many of these stakeholders, must be watching with great interest emerging signs of Nepali public sentiment rising against Chinese interference in Nepali affairs.