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Indian foreign policy vis-a-vis Nepal was pathetic

By T V R Shenoy
April 28, 2006 11:35 IST
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We are still a long way off from seeing the votes being cast, leave alone their being counted and legislators sworn in, but one thing seems to be reasonably clear: the Communists have seized control of three vital territories. All three are on the periphery of the Indian heartland -- West Bengal, Kerala, and Nepal. And, to a lesser or a greater extent, they have been deliberately gifted away by Sonia Gandhi and her hand-picked nominee as prime minister.

To start with West Bengal, this is -- or soon shall be -- the site of a legitimate Left Front victory. Was there ever a hope of the Marxists losing power? Well, only a very faint one, and that would have depended on the Congress forming a 'Mahajot' with the Trinamool Congress.

The Trinamool Congress won 30.66% of the votes in 2001, the Congress got 7.98%, and the Bharatiya Janata Party managed 5.19%. That adds up to a very healthy 43.83%, especially so when the CPI-M totted up 36.59%. But the CPI-M had allies; add the the CPI votes (1.79%), the Forward Bloc (5.65%), and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (3.43%), and you get 47.46%. (How the CPI managed to win fewer votes than the BJP is something only the comrades can explain!)

To be fair, the BJP, the Congress, and the Trinamool Congress had almost zero coordination. The BJP contested 266 seats and the Trinamool Congress put up 226 candidates -- all for a House with a strength of 294. Who can say what might have happened had the three parties not fought each other as ferociously as they fought the CPI-M? But, at the end of the day, politics is at least much about chemistry as it is about arithmetic, and asking the Congress, the Trinamool Congress, and the BJP to come together was to demand the moon.

Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is able to present a coherent vision. The chief minister of West Bengal has openly voiced his concerns about unchecked migration from Bangladesh; when was the last time you heard those sentiments from a Congressman? The Marxist leader invites foreign direct investment; the Trinamool Congress can only mumble shopworn formulae about businessmen coming to Bengal to make money. (Why else would they be there?) Given such an opposition, voting for Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is the only rational choice.

I am sure Sonia Gandhi knows that. Assured of a Left Front victory, she is free to make fiery speeches against the Communists. But there wasn't a peep about the disastrous policies still officially espoused by the Left in Kerala when she went down south to campaign. CPI-M General Secretary Prakash Karat had given an interview, in which the words 'withdraw support' were prominent. These still echoed when the Congress president and the prime minister came to Kerala to 'campaign' -- and neither dared to utter a word directly condemning the Left.

If anything, the Congress high command has gone out of its way to sabotage the party's chances. It was the party bosses in Delhi -- urged on, to be sure, by A K Antony -- who chose to embrace K Karunakaran once again. This one move succeeded in demoralising loyalists and angering voters (many of whom are put off by the veteran's dynastic ambitions).

The weird bit is that the Congress-led United Democratic Front still has an outside chance. Chief Minister Oomen Chandy and his lieutenants have chosen to on the single issue of development. The policies of the Left in Kerala -- unlike its counterpart in West Bengal -- have not moved an inch beyond theories in vogue decades ago. V S Achuthanandan is a fine individual but I shudder for Kerala should he be at the helm. The best bet for Kerala is Oomen Chandy's return to power.

'A week,' the late British prime minister Harold Wilson said, 'is a long time in politics.' On my last trip to Kerala, everyone was talking in terms of an absolute sweep for the Left Democratic Front. Today, the chatter is about a smaller majority. That is thanks both to the chief minister's talk of development and to the CPI-M's infighting. (Rumours abound that Achuthanandan is going to be stabbed in the back by his comrades. Again!)

But the CPI-M still holds the ace, namely the power to tumble the Congress ministers in Delhi out of their chairs. I agree that potential American intervention in Iran has become an election issue in Kerala, but is that important enough for Comrade Karat to issue not-so-veiled warnings about withdrawing support? Not really, I believe he was just reminding the Congress that the price of support in Delhi must be paid in hard coin in Kerala.

What about Nepal? I know this is a deeply unpopular thing to say but I believe India's security has taken a battering due to the last dramatic week in the Himalayan kingdom. We are still twittering away about 'absolute monarchy' and 'parliamentary democracy.' Those are not the real options any longer.

Forget all the talk of that grand seven party alliance in Nepal. Do you remember what Lenin said of the socialists in western Europe? They were, he said, 'useful idiots.' (Or, to quote Sardar Patel, the socialists were 'the miners and sappers of Communism.') The Maoists already control vast swathes of Nepal. How long shall it be before they stop whispering sweet nothings and begin to demand an ever greater role in Kathmandu? And who is to stop them?

King Gyanendra may not be the smartest man in Nepal, but he still possessed two qualities that still escape the seven party alliance (as well as scores of bureaucrats in Delhi). He could see that the Maoists were the single greatest threat to Nepal. And he had the loyalty of the Royal Nepal Army. The pygmy politicians possess neither the wisdom nor the allegiance.

Let us assume that the seven party alliance chases the monarch from his throne. What will happen when the Maoists resume their bloody operations. (I write 'when', not 'if'!) Can a demoralised Royal Nepal Army fight back? Or are we going to see a repetition of pre-war Germany, when a dictatorship came to power thanks to a weak-kneed republic that had replaced an absolute monarchy?

Indian foreign policy vis-a-vis Nepal was pathetic. We could either have supported King Gyanendra in his battle against the Maoists, or we could have backed the democratic parties with all our might. The Manmohan Singh ministry chose to do neither. The result is that the monarchy has been weakened (perhaps fatally) while the seven party alliance is ready to spit in India's face.

Given the ministerial vacuum in South Block, it seems CPI-M Politburo member Sitaram Yechury was allowed to act as India's external affairs minister. It was at his dictates that decisions were taken in Delhi to dishearten India's remaining friends in the mountain kingdom. The Maoists -- already a menace stretching from Bihar to Andhra Pradesh -- are now assured of a sanctuary in Nepal. Did anyone in Delhi think through the security implications of Maoists running riot?

The Left Front victory in West Bengal will be well deserved. But both Kerala and Nepal deserved better.

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T V R Shenoy