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The Light's Turned Red

Set to lead a regime in Nepal, Maoists subject India ties to a revision

The Light's Turned Red
The Light's Turned Red
Why The Wariness?
  • India behaves like a big brother and has established an unequal relationship with Nepal
  • No arms can be purchased without India's consent.
  • India gets priority in industrial projects, subject to cost consideration
  • Interferes in domestic politics, plays the kingmaker
  • Nepal's trade too is dependent on India


From the time democracy was reinstated in Nepal in 1991, competitive anti-India rhetoric had been among its defining features. Yet all the sound and fury generated during election campaigns failed to redefine Indo-Nepal bilateral relations or undermine New Delhi's traditionally dominant position in Kathmandu. And though the recent Constituent Assembly (CA) election was devoid of political players spitting venom against India, its outcome could now ironically lead to a review of the existing ties between the two countries. For, at the helm of the new coalition government will be the Maoists whose worldview is anti-imperialistic (read United States) and anti-expansionist (read India).

Having long fed their cadres on the staple of India's 'evil design'—its perceived bullying and interference in domestic politics and the bourgeois nature of its state—Maoist leaders will encounter enormous pressure from below to bring about a shift in Nepal's foreign policy. Cooperation in hydel power projects might be looked at anew, Nepal's security structure could be rejigged, and Indian businesses are not likely to have a free run of the place as they have had till now. The new wind blowing in Nepal saw New Delhi send signals (rather hastily, some say) of its readiness to look afresh at the Indo-Nepal Peace and Friendship Treaty, 1950.

Revision of the 1950 treaty has been an old Maoist demand, which was reiterated by Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) leader Prachanda within days of the announcement of the CA election results. Prachanda did adopt a conciliatory tone subsequently, but the party opposes the treaty because most Nepalis feel it brings their country under India's security umbrella. Going by protocol signed under the treaty, Nepal can import arms only with the "assistance and agreement" of the Indian government. Another clause provides for preferential treatment to India in Nepal's endeavour to develop natural resources and establish industrial projects. This clause is on a reciprocal basis, but Nepal can't benefit from it because its technology is neither developed nor cost-effective. Such clauses have goaded the Maoists into accusing India of behaving like a big brother towards Nepal.

It doesn't surprise anyone that the treaty should have come under the scanner even before a Maoist-led government is in place. CPN's foreign relations department head C.P. Gajurel told Outlook, "We're keen to establish new relations with India. Politically, it'll be based on an approach of equidistance with India and China. But there will no more be a special relationship with India."

But Gajurel obviously needs to balance his party's radical policies with the geo-political reality (India is a looming, powerful presence in landlocked Nepal). Otherwise it could lead to the ejection of a reciprocal clause that enables Nepalis and Indians to work and reside in each other's country; a clause widely accepted to be more beneficial to Nepal. "We are, of course, not going to take a unilateral view. India and Nepal need to sit together and settle the issues of trade and investment in a spirit of equality and practicality," explains Gajurel.

What is also expected to come for review is the border policy. A 1,750-km open border and poor vigilance mechanism have fanned cross-border crimes. India feels Nepal has become a major base of ISI activists; the Maoists fear Hindu fanatical groups will foment trouble in Nepal in retaliation against the inevitable abolition of monarchy. Way back in the mid-'80s, Nepal's renowned planner, Dr Harka Gurung, had suggested introducing work permits and registering the entry of Indians in Nepal, but the suggestion was dumped because it was perceived as 'anti-India'. Dr Gurung, who died two years ago, is now being hailed as 'guru and guide' by key Maoist ideologue Baburam Bhattarai, signalling that the permit system could now become the focus of the Maoist policy towards India.

National pride and fear of India swamping Nepal, however unfounded, underlie the Maoist response to New Delhi. There's already talk of Kathmandu denying India the 'priority right' in harnessing its vast hydel power potential. The Maoist feels such existing projects are to India's advantage, and are expected to opt for a more competition-based approach in this sector. Again, it is national pride that has prompted the Maoists to demand an end to the recruitment of Gorkhas in the Indian army. "We are going to change this big brother-small brother relationship. There will be equality in the relationship between Nepal and India," Barshaman Pun alias Ananta, commander of the Peoples' Liberation Army (PLA), told Outlook.

But there's also a flip side to this demand for equality. For instance, can the Nepali economy absorb the Gorkhas who might remain unemployed because of a ban on their recruitment in the Indian army? Does Nepal boast of a cost-effective technology to build massive hydel power projects? From where will Nepal secure petro-products supplied by India on subsidised rates? Enter the China factor, for the Maoist opposition to India's 'special relationship' with Nepal is linked to the dragon's ambitions in the North.

Importantly, China's relative inaccessibility—which gives a certain heft to India here—could now be a thing of the past. Ai Ping, director of the international relations bureau of the Chinese Communist Party, recently told Prime Minister G.P. Koirala that Tibet will be linked to the Nepal border by rail, within five years. This is in addition to the four road routes linking Nepal with China, which are at various stages of implementation. The rail link not only promises to increase the trade volume with China, it will also reduce Nepal's sole dependence on India for transit facilities and trade diversification. In a way, the Maoists are expected to carry forward King Gyanendra's attempts to move closer to China, a policy which had India quite worried then.

"Maoists want to change the practice of India having to endorse each and every major change taking place in Nepal. India's bureaucracy does not command much trust and respect in Nepal, and Maoists will not be tolerating them like the previous regimes did," says Hari Roka, a political analyst whom the Maoists nominated to the interim parliament. Given the geography and Nepal's history—close cultural ties and an open border—Roka admits that maintaining equidistance between India and China "may not be quite possible". But Nepal's 'India-centric' economic policy is something the Maoists will have to change, he said.

In the end, for all their fear about India and their ideological inclinations, the Maoists have to adopt a pragmatic policy. Else they could end up hurting their own countrymen more than India.
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