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India's short-sightedness

By T V R Shenoy
February 24, 2005 12:30 IST
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Leave it to the mandarins in the central secretariat to take a bad situation and make it worse! India knew that it had a potential crisis on its hand when King Gyanendra dismissed his prime minister on February 1. It took three weeks to formulate a reaction -- which has now come in the form of cutting off aid to the Royal Nepal Army. I happen to believe that this is ridiculously short-sighted.

Nepal sneers at threat to cut arms aid

Everyone agrees that the best possible situation would be a constitutional monarchy in Nepal with a pro-India ministry in place and no Maoist insurrection. Unfortunately, we have to deal with the world as it is, not as it should be. Let us take a look at how events may unfold.

Scenario One: The Maoists intensify their attacks, controlling larger swatches of that unfortunate country. They already rule 39 of Nepal's 75 districts. If India chooses to starve the Royal Nepal Army of supplies, in the name of restoring democracy, there is an excellent chance that the king and his forces will simply throw in the towel and give in to the Maoists. The Maoists will then join hands with their murderous Naxalite brethren in India.

Scenario Two: What happens if King Gyanendra becomes desperate at the Indian decision to stop military supplies? Let us remember that it is open to him to seek aid from Pakistan or China. This gives him a fighting chance of beating the Maoists. The victorious monarch shall then be an enemy of India as long as he lives (and probably his successors too).

Scenario Three: The Government of India decides to reverse its stance and resume the flow of arms to the Royal Nepal Army. The politicians in Nepal will protest vehemently. Irrespective of whether King Gyanendra carries the field against the Maoists, a section of the Nepali people will hate India.

Nepal: Help, not sermons

It is like one of those horrible Test matches where India cannot hope to win, the best it can plan for is a draw. In Nepal today, it means working toward a solution that will result in a regime that is not actively anti-Indian. Will a Maoist dictatorship in Kathmandu meet that requirement? Is a government dependent on aid from Islamabad and Beijing in India's best interests? Think about those questions and then tell me how it serves India if New Delhi cuts off all aid to the Royal Nepal Army.

Yes, I have heard all the loud protests from Washington and London about the need to restore democracy. But geography is more important than rhetoric. Neither the United States nor the United Kingdom neighbours Nepal. Neither is in any danger of being inundated with Naxalites. And quite frankly neither the Maoists nor the Royal Nepal Army have any great regard for the democracy which the Americans and the British talk about. We have to choose the foreign policy which suits us, not a bunch of stuffed-shirt diplomats halfway across the world.

Some readers may think that I am raising a bogeyman when I speak of King Gyanendra getting cosy with the Chinese and the Pakistanis. The monarch of the world's only Hindu state would never sup with an Islamic republic and a Communist state, would he? Why not? Statecraft demands that a ruler must do everything he can to keep his nation safe. That is why the arch-Conservative Winston Churchill danced with Stalin in World War II, and it is why, closer home, King Mahendra allowed Pakistan to gain its first foothold in Nepal.

Nepal: The Chinese squeeze

On December 15, 1960, King Mahendra, King Gyanendra's father, dismissed Parliament and suspended the 1959 Constitution. The leaders of the Nepali Congress -- Bishweswar Prasad Koirala, Surya Prasad Upadhyaya and Ganesh Man Singh -- were arrested, and all political parties were banned. Jawaharlal Nehru reacted precisely as the United Progressive Alliance ministry has done today, trying to force the monarch's hand by withholding supplies. The angry king turned to Pakistan.

Please note that Nepal had not bothered even to establish diplomatic relations with Pakistan up to that point. (East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, was quite close in terms of distance.) It was Delhi's over-reaction which led to the first links between Nepal and Pakistan. The mandarins of South Block may also like to note that India's disapproval mattered not a jot, and that it took almost thirty years before King Birendra permitted political activity to resume. Why would the Indian gesture of 2005 be any more effective than that of 1960?

There are, of course, some factors which have changed since 1960. For one, there was no Maoist activity to worry about. For a second, China is now far more powerful -- both economically and in military terms -- than it was 45 years ago. For a third, King Gyanendra is on far better terms with the Chinese than either his father or his elder brother were. (Chinese-controlled Hong Kong is known to be a favourite spot for the royal family when it is investing money.) In other words, the geopolitical situation is now worse for India than it was in 1960.

Nepal, the next Tibet

There were never going to be any comfortable options for India. The principles of liberal democracy hold little or no attraction for either the Maoists or the Royal Nepal Army. But a Maoist regime in Kathmandu is the worst possible option, and a close second is a Nepal dependent on aid from Pakistan and China. Both options are now a distinct possibility thanks to the decision to cut off Indian aid to Nepal. We have preferred rhetoric above reason, and we shall pay the price.

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T V R Shenoy