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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

A yam between two rocks

September 14, 2010

Raja Mohan
Express India
September 10, 2010

It does not matter if the recent reports from
Nepal that China is helping the Maoists buy
political support and win the prime minister’s
post are true. As Nepal’s large neighbour to the
north, China has always had considerable
influence in Kathmandu. As its power rises,
China’s ability to influence the evolution of its
immediate periphery in the subcontinent is growing rapidly.

Nor is new for Nepal’s Maoists to play the "China
card" against India. After a brief period, in the
wake of China winning control of Tibet in 1950,
when it had a tight alliance with New Delhi,
Kathmandu saw opportunities in playing the China
card as Sino-Indian tensions in the late 1950s
boiled over into a brief conflict in 1962.

Put simply, Nepal’s China card is nearly half a
century old. All political parties in Nepal have
played it whenever they wanted to improve their
bargaining power vis-à-vis Delhi. Nepal’s elite
has often described the nation’s geopolitical
condition as a “yam between two rocks.”

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Kathmandu’s China card is, indeed, a consequence
of India’s primacy in Nepal, which in turn is
rooted in geography, demography and history. As
China rises, its importance for Nepal will
continue to grow too; but Sino-Nepalese ties are
unlikely to ever match the intensity and intimacy
of India-Nepal ties. That, as Delhi knows, is at
once an advantage and a disadvantage.

Actually, India’s current problems in Nepal have
less to do with China than with the deep
divisions within Nepal’s political class. Since
the turn of the 1990s, when Nepal became
democratic, its political leaders have failed to
provide even a bit of political stability and a
measure of decent governance. As every political
formation quarrelled with itself and others,
India’s special ties to Nepal repeatedly sucked
it into Kathmandu’s political vortex. All the
fractions in Kathmandu demand India’s support and
deeply resent it when they don’t get it.

The recent talk of India’s "growing
unpopularity," then, does not mean much. India
has seen much worse before, for example after
Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi imposed a blockade
when the Nepali monarchy played the China card in the late 1980s.

In any case, India is not in a beauty contest in
Kathmandu. It must live with the reality that
Nepal’s political classes want India’s help to
resolve the current political deadlock and at the
same time fear that Delhi’s intervention might go
against their individual ambitions.

The question then is not whether India should
intervene in Nepal, but when, how, and under what
terms. Those decisions are not imminent, but they might not be too far away.

It was, after all, India’s diplomatic
interventions that united the mainstream
political parties and the Maoists against the
monarchy in 2005, prevented the then king,
Gyanendra, from unleashing a bloodbath against
peaceful protestors in 2006, and promoted a peace
accord for the integration of the Maoists into
the mainstream of Nepal’s political life.

If it is India’s burden to assist Nepal in
resolving its frequent internal crises, China is
a free-rider that can deal with whoever is in
power at any given time, and exploit the
inevitable differences between Kathmandu and Delhi.

The diplomatic challenge for Delhi is to prepare
for that moment when it will have to step in to
resolve the crisis in Nepal. India’s political
leadership, including the current one, tends to
ignore Nepal until a fleeting headache becomes an unbearable migraine.

For the moment, though, Delhi is staring at three
possible futures in Kathmandu. Under the first,
the current stalemate between the Maoists and the
mainstream political parties will continue, and
the present “caretaker government” will have no
option but to govern for much longer than any one had anticipated.

Under the second scenario, the Maoists manage to
draw a few more parliamentarians to its side, win
the prime ministership and move quickly towards a
one-party dictatorship. That the Maoists have not
kept their word on giving up their instruments of
coercion as part of the peace process is proof
enough that their options are still open.

A third possibility is that Maoists will
recognise -- after seven inconclusive rounds of
voting for a new prime minister — the importance
of reassuring other political parties, giving up
the instruments of violence, and joining the democratic process.

Delhi’s current diplomatic challenge is to
prevent the second outcome and promote the third.
There is no guarantee, however, that Delhi will
succeed. To improve the chances of a peaceful
resolution to the current deadlock, India must
launch a sustained and intense engagement with
all political parties in Nepal. While India
cannot and should not write the script for that
country’s political leaders, it must press
vigorously for a political consensus in Kathmandu.

Delhi must also do its bit to make the
international environment more favourable to the
peace process. The United Nations Mission in
Nepal (UNMIN) might have served as a valuable
“Shikhandi” in the past, but it is no substitute
to Delhi’s own consultations with the major powers.

India must also reach out to Beijing for a frank
discussion on the political future of the
Himalayan republic. Any settlement in Nepal that
does not meet the interests of major powers,
especially China, is unlikely to survive for too
long. India must offer China a substantive
dialogue on finding ways to stabilise their
shared and turbulent periphery. Nepal might be a good place to start.

Finally, India must also encourage the Nepalese
themselves to define a new vision for their
nation. Situated between the world’s two
fastest-growing economies, there is no reason for
Nepal to remain one of the world’s poorest places.

If Kathmandu can produce a bit of political
coherence at home and demonstrate a measure of
economic purposefulness, Nepal can thrive as the
Himalayan bridge between India and China.
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