Sep 13, 2010

The chaos next door

Yubaraj Ghimire

Back in 1989, when India launched an economic blockade that lasted about 20 months and created massive shortages in landlocked Nepal, King Birendra quietly sent a small team of trusted aides and officials to China to explore if the north was ready to be a dependable alternative.

China might have wanted to keep the visit secret and therefore asked the Nepali team to come to Lhasa where a senior minister from Beijing joined them. But to the great disappointment of the team, the Chinese minister asked them to be realistic. We are not in a position to do much in the next two to three decades, and Nepal should continue to mend fences with India, was the message conveyed. Meanwhile, as “a token of the highest regard that we have for Nepal’s monarchy,” Beijing sent 10,000 litres of low-octane petroleum to fuel-starved Nepal, which was barely enough for a week’s consumption.

King Birendra felt particularly betrayed. He was disappointed with India, as the unexpected blockade came barely two years after he had annulled a global contract that China had won for the construction of the 300-km Kohalpur-Banbasa road along the Indian border. The king unilaterally awarded the contract to India after P.V. Narasimha Rao, then external affairs minister, met the king to convey India’s security concerns.

As the blockade continued, Birendra received another proposal from India through S.K. Singh, that Nepal concede India’s priority rights in harnessing Nepal’s water resources and that it accept India’s enhanced security concerns even on matters of arms-imports for its consumption. All this while, China quietly looked away.

But in 2005, when India and the West stopped supplying arms to the Nepal army in disapproval of the royal takeover, China dispatched arms in large volumes. This was a clear departure from its projected low interest in Nepal. Now, less than three decades after King Birendra’s team returned empty-handed, the Chinese no longer suggest that Nepal should depend more on India, or that it has less stake or influence. Rather, it asserts that it is willing to cooperate and compete with, and confront India in Nepal if necessary.

China has expanded its areas of interest and often matched India’s brazenness in its dealings and involvement in Nepal’s internal politics. To cite an example, while the government of Nepal has been instructed by a parliament committee to probe an incident in which an Indian embassy official was accused of physically harming a Maoist parliamentarian, the Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Authority (CIAA), an anti-graft constitutional body, is investigating a recently broadcast audio tape in which the Maoists’ foreign affairs chief, K.B. Mahara, and an unidentified Chinese official are negotiating an arrangement, with Mahara demanding Rs 500 million to buy members of parliament and form the government. This issue has taken a wider dimension as two national dailies — Kantipur (Nepali) and The Kathmandu Post (English) — splashed front-page commentaries by their editors claiming that the contents of the tape were distributed by the Indian embassy. The editors also claimed that they received calls from an Indian embassy official when they were dining with the Chinese ambassador.

The constituent assembly’s failure to deliver a constitution on time, the parliament’s failure to elect a prime minister for over two months, and the resulting political chaos have created greater despair and concern about the future of democracy in Nepal. Political leaders, whether they are part of the Maoists or the Nepali Congress, are widely resented. Among the public, there is an unconcealed and real anger directed against these leaders, and a sense that things were much better when the king was around. This, perhaps, has emboldened Gyanendra and his son Paras to tour various parts of the country.

The consolidation of democracy, political stability and economic prosperity were all gifts promised to Nepal when the Maoists — still armed insurgents — and seven pro-democracy parties signed a 12-point understanding in November 2005 in Delhi, agreeing to collectively launch an anti-monarchy movement with Indian mediation. Gyanendra’s lead role in having China as an observer to SAARC — a proposal that was unanimously endorsed during the summit in Dhaka on November 6 and 7 that year — had apparently irked India, and the 12-point agreement was a consequence of that. India chose to bury the monarchy and cultivate and support the Maoists as a popular force, which it is now at loggerheads with. Tragically enough, neither India nor China can confidently negotiate with any of the existing political parties for their long-term interests, including security-related ones. That explains their direct, even brazen involvement at times, which Nepalis find discomfiting.

China finds its sensitivity on Tibet issues ignored by the current regime. There has been no serious review so far in Delhi over its role in the 12-point agreement and the events that followed in Nepal, and whether India has gained or lost in the estimate of the Nepali people. The instability and economic ruin of Nepal should not be seen as the fallout of the 12-point agreement. The political mismanagement that followed the agreement still continues to wreck its fate.

Courtsey: Indian Express / Sept 11, 2010

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