Sunday, June 02, 2013

Sharpening of the Sikkim Meme

Indian Ambassador Jayant Prasad is concluding his tenure in Nepal on a far more placid note than his immediate predecessor did. In retrospect, the consistently bad press Rakesh Sood got here could be partly blamed on his own personality, and partly on the circumstances of Nepal-India relations prevailing at the time. In any case, Sood’s tenure did underscore the wisdom of at least trying to match the person with his period.
Prasad, perhaps also mindful of the sometimes controversial role of his father, Bimal Prasad, during the early phase of Nepal’s restored multiparty democracy, remained careful not to ruffle feathers. (Remember how Nepali Congress President Krishna Prasad Bhattarai had to hear from Ambassador Bimal Prasad how Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala was reshuffling his cabinet and dropping Bhattarai loyalists?)
Yet Jayant Prasad had to reconcile the imperative of perceived neutrality with his overall brief to speak candidly on matters he considered supportive of his nation’s interests in Nepal. Since ambassadors generally feel they can afford to speak more openly at the end of their tenures, Prasad seized the opportunity.
In interacting with Nepali journalists – the fraternity with the influence and inclination to give him the most grief – Prasad chose a broad swath consisting of democrats, communists and royalists.
The ambassador insisted that India was genuinely interested in helping Nepal. New Delhi, he averred, paid great attention to ensuring that its assistance and modes of delivery were compatible with Nepal’s pressing requirements.
When Prasad interjected Sikkim into the conversation – specifically, how it is now the fifth richest state in India – Maila Baje doesn't think he somehow tripped. His Excellency embarked in his own way toward exuding his country’s soft power.
In Sikkim, Prasad explained to his audience, the Nepali language could be used as a medium for appearing in examinations to qualify for government services in India. In fact, Nepalis could purchase land in and inhabit any state of India.
While he was at it, Prasad might as well have reminded Nepalis how there is no movement in Sikkim to restore its independence. Indeed, ‘Sikkimization’ is not even a pejorative there.
Nor does ‘Bhutanization’ seem to be in Bhutan. Sure, the country would love some extra breathing space, such as in regularizing relations with China and becoming a more active member of the international community. But what Nepalis perceive as India’s stranglehold on Bhutanese domestic and international relations is oblivious to the locals.
Of course, the section of the population most aggrieved happened to be chased out of the country almost two decades ago. Bhutan continues to be extolled as a model of gross national happiness, at a time when some ethnic Nepali Bhutanese families are divided across several countries as refugees. Ethnic cleansing seems to acquire much legitimacy when it is concluded relatively bloodlessly within a specific geo-strategic context.
The larger point here is how the Sikkim meme has entered a new phase in Nepal. When, under the Panchayat system, the palace perceived and pointed out threats to national sovereignty and independence emanating from the south, Indians easily portrayed such apprehensions as part of the crown’s sinister plot aimed at self-preservation. The surprising part was how easily the domestic anti-Panchayat camp was ready to parrot that line.
When democratic parties before and after the Panchayat era pointed to instances of Indian ham-handedness, they were dismissed as mere politicking. As that process persists, our pols undermine their case by voicing such concerns only when they are out of power. Unfortunately for Nepal, the Indians have been successful in ridiculing the very articulation of these grievances.
Today, when Baburam Bhattarai, the most India-friendly politician since Matrika Prasad Koirala in Nepali popular perception, praises Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ideas in an interview with state-controlled Chinese media, the Indian media cannot resist giving a snarky spin to the story.
It is easy to say how times have changed and that Nepal’s full independence and sovereignty are realities that only irrational Indians can question. Sadly, the reality of the first part of that contention does not validate the second. India’s Nepal policy, sensible observers in both countries agree, is devised by a motley range of actors with variable opinions and outlooks. Even when the priorities of individual constituencies converge, it is not necessarily on account of an agreement on the premise.
One such constituency consists of Indians who have never reconciled themselves psychologically to the reality that Nepal has managed to remain outside the modern Indian federation. Since this is a state of mind, the presence of this constituency transcends Indian institutions.
Sikkim and Bhutan, the other Himalayan border states that independent India’s leaders saw as the unfinished business of 1947, have been enmeshed in their own strategically sound arrangements with the regional behemoth. Nepal, however, has slipped further away.
Our pesky sense of independence, regardless of the political system in place here, confounds this section of Indians. Questioning the value of that independence, then, becomes the next logical step. If Sikkim can lose its sovereignty but still strengthen its soul, who are Nepalis to complain? With the premise thus set, the discussion can take its course.