With Prachanda at the helm in Kathmandu, New Delhi can start with a clean slate. A fresh approach can put Indo-Nepal relations back on track
On Monday, Nepalese Prime Minister Prachanda won the confidence vote to start his third term. India has had far better relations with Maoist leader Prachanda than with former PM KP Oli of CPN (UML). Nepal’s pro-China policy took a visible turn during Oli’s term. He politically exploited India’s apparent rejection of the Constitution, then Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar’s virtual diktat to alter and not promulgate it and the 53-day-long and painful border blockade. Oli signed agreements with China on trade and infrastructure, thus replacing India as the country of last resort.
India’s inept handling of the Kalapani border dispute allowed Oli to unilaterally incorporate the Kalapani-Lipulekh-Limpiadora areas in Nepal with an unprecedented 100 per cent parliamentary vote. Zealous and overconfident, he accused India of cheating Nepal and hurled insults at us. The war of words abated only after New Delhi launched its charm offensive by sending R&AW chief Goyal, former Chief of Army Staff Gen Naravane, and former foreign secretary Shringla.
This helped mend relations. The visits paid off and it was business as usual, as Oli realised that no Nepal government could tread on India’s toes and survive. Oli’s transformation, rather than his taming by New Delhi, was a lesson in diplomacy.
Oli’s survival as Prime Minister was aided by President Bidya Debi Bhandari (UML). She violated norms and even the Constitution by ensuring Oli’s longevity as leader of the House till the Supreme Court intervened, not once but twice. The new pro-China Left alliance collapsed much to the dismay of Beijing which had invested considerable resources in its survival.
Third time Prime Minister Prachanda has played the long game. He was compelled by the former prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, who served five terms, to jump ship to support Oli as Deuba vacillated offering prime- ministership to Prachanda. For Prachanda’s party, the Maoists, had won only 32 seats in the elections.
Still Prachanda claimed he commanded the support of 64 seats. When Deuba hesitated, without blinking, he joined the perennial foe Oli. But Prachanda was never comfortable with his decision to join Oli and had sought to return to Deuba. The opportunity was provided by President Paudel. Prachanda argued that when Oli became Prime Minister, the top three positions — of the PM, the President and the Speaker — would be from the same party, leading to authoritarian rule.
Prachanda is no longer a big fan of China. During the Civil War era, Maoists fancied Mao and other communist leaders but saw communist states on the decline. He is pro-Nepal and knows that Nepal can benefit from two fast-growing economies.
Unfortunately for him, India-China relations have plummeted after the Chinese aggression in Ladakh. When he first became prime minister in 2008, his first visit was to China for the Olympics. But his first political visit was to India, for which he has a soft corner. Nine out of ten years he directed the Maoist insurgency, mostly from Noida, UP. Maoists used to say nasty things about India and the US during those days, but acknowledged India’s role in ending the conflict and paving the path for peace and democracy.
Prachanda will shortly expand his cabinet to accommodate the 11 parties that support him. As he replaces his foreign minister, the parliamentary foreign affairs committee will be responsible for making a decision on the Agnipath Scheme, which has been pending for nine months now. The feedback from Nepal is not encouraging, as the ruling party will be constrained by UML and other communists from supporting the four-year recruitment scheme with no post-retirement outlets.
Communists in Nepal have always criticised Gorkhas joining foreign armies, especially the Indian Army. In addition, the Prachanda Government's support for the scheme drew criticism from UML for being pro-India.
Agnipath is discriminatory and in breach of the tripartite agreement 1947. This is because Indian Agniveers will have 10 per cent reservation in the Border Security Force and the Central Industrial Security Force, but Nepalese citizens are not eligible for these organisations.
People also say that 90 per cent of those who join the Indian Army are Jan Jatis and not Brahmins and Chhetris who constitute decision-making at political and bureaucratic levels. They will not worry about the Indian and Nepali Armies' relationships and history. India could have helped end the problem by simply removing the Nepali Gorkhas from Agnipath.
On 10 March was Nepal Army Day. The Nepal Embassy commemorated the event by highlighting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech in the Nepalese Parliament: “India has fought no war in which Nepali blood has not been shed.” Given the warped Agniveer idea, soon there may be no Nepalese joining the Army. It's time Modi’s most trusted Foreign Minister Jaishankar devoted more time on Nepal, further fostering India’s Neighbourhood First Policy.
Prachanda’s first visit abroad is to India next month, though China’s Ambassador Chen Song tried to get him to China first. India’s impeccable conduct of non-interference during elections in stark contrast to traditional charges of micro-management in the past has won it kudos.
With Prachanda at the helm, New Delhi can start with a clean slate. Just as Jaishankar has won over Sri Lanka with economic sustenance, he can begin the recovery programme in Nepal. With Deuba as leader of a single largest party and a prime minister, India has a winning hand to play the game. The ball is in Jaishankar’s court.
(The writer, a retired Lt Gen, was Commander, IPKF South, Sri Lanka, & founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the Integrated Defence Staff; views expressed are personal)