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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Indian and China hover over Nepal

October 25, 2010

Sudha Ramachandran
Asia Times
October 23, 2010

BANGALORE - Nearly four months after Nepal's
prime minister Madhav Kumar Nepal stepped down
under pressure from the opposition Maoists, the
political impasse is showing no signs of
resolution as the country flounders without a government.

None of the candidates in the fray has been able
to secure a simple majority in the 601-seat
parliament in around 12 rounds of voting so far.

Former prime minister and Maoist chief Pushpa
Kumar Dahal, aka Prachanda, contested in seven
rounds but failed to secure the required number
of votes in any, although his party, the Unified
Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), is the largest in parliament.

In the most recent round, the lone candidate, the
Nepali Congress leader Ram Chandra Paudel,
managed to get just 89 votes. The Maoists, the
Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist
Leninist) (CPN-UML) and three Madhesi parties
stayed out of the vote, having reached an
agreement to work towards formation of a national
government as a way out of the impasse.

The political paralysis has contributed to a
deepening economic crisis in the country, one of
world's poorest. On Wednesday, the United Nations
Security Council called on Nepal's caretaker
government and all parties to "redouble their efforts" to break the deadlock.

Officials from India, China and the European
Union have been talking to political leaders and
using all means at their disposal to break the stalemate.

While the next round of voting is scheduled for
October 26, there are few signs that the crisis will end soon.

Sections of the Nepali media, the public and the
political parties blame India for the impasse.
They believe that Delhi's "meddling" in Nepal's
politics is preventing government formation. An
argument that has many takers in Nepal today is
that Delhi has been working overtime to prevent
the Maoists from returning to power.

India's unease with the Maoists is well known.
There is a perception here that Nepal's Maoists
have strong links with India's Maoists. Indian
officials continue to see them as rebels and are
convinced that their shift to mainstream politics
is temporary. India is opposed to their ambitions
of restructuring in a fundamental way the Nepali
state and its institutions, noted Indian analyst
Siddharth Varadarajan wrote in the Hindu newspaper.

Moreover, the Maoists are seen to be pro-China.
During the short period they were in power, the
Maoists were seen to be tilting towards China.
Delhi fears that if they return to power, India's
weakening influence in Nepal will diminish further.

Landlocked Nepal is sandwiched between India and
China (through Tibet). India looks on Nepal as
falling under its sphere of influence and regards
any warming of Sino-Nepal relations with suspicion.

India has always played an important role in
Nepal's politics. Nepal's pro-democracy movement
was supported by India for several decades and
Nepali Congress leaders waged their struggle for
democracy from Indian soil. More recently, Indian
leaders helped broker the 12-point understanding
between the Maoists and Nepal's other political
parties in 2005, enabling the rebels to emerge
from the underground. Delhi played an important
role too in convincing the king to step down.

While Nepal's democracy owes much to India, it is
a fact too that when democratic elections in 2008
brought the Maoists to power, Delhi's support for
democracy wavered. In the series of spats between
the Maoist-led government and the military in
2009, it backed the latter and blocked the Maoist
move to sack the army chief. India is believed to
have played a role in the collapse of the Maoist
government in May 2009 and in putting together
the coalition government headed by Madhav Nepal.

Over the past year, anti-Indian sentiment has
mounted in Nepal, visible in articles and
editorials in the media and in public discourse.
While it is possible that this sentiment is being
stoked, as claimed by Indian intelligence
agencies, by the Maoists, Indian officials cannot
absolve themselves of responsibility for Delhi's
fading fortunes in Nepal. Their repeated bungling
has resulted in support for India touching an all-time low in Nepal.

Delhi's excessive response to Nepal's largest
media house - the Kantipur Group, with its
"biased reporting" and "anti-India editorial
positions" - is one example of this bungling.

India was awarded a contract by the Nepali
government for printing its passports. The
decision was opposed by the Maoists. When the
Kantipur Group, which was vocal in its criticism
of the decision, published a leaked letter from
the Indian ambassador to the Nepali government
requesting its cooperation on the awarding of the
contract as it involved Indian security, an
embarrassed and annoyed India struck back.

First, the embassy withdrew its advertisements in
the Kantipur's publications. Then advertisements
from Indian companies dried up, too. Then came a
deadlier blow. Newsprint meant for Kantipur
publications was stopped by Indian customs authorities at Kolkata port.

When the Kantipur Group went public on the spat,
Nepali public sentiment swung against Indian "bullying".

While the dispute has since been resolved
somewhat with Kantipur agreeing to adopt a more
"constructive" editorial position and India
releasing the newsprint, the damage to India's
already plunging stock in Nepal has been done.

Then came allegations by lawmaker Ram Kumar
Sharma, a Madhesi politician who recently crossed
over to vote with the Maoists. Sharma alleged
that an Indian Embassy official had warned him
that his daughter would be thrown out of an
Indian government-run school in Kathmandu if he
did not vote as told, ie not for Prachanda.

While the veracity of his claim has yet to be
established, what is clear is that the gloves are
off in Nepal, with Delhi and the Maoists engaged
in a no-holds-barred war of words and more.

The Maoists have stepped up their stoking of
anti-Indian sentiment in the country, while
India's determination to keep the Maoists out of power is growing.

Beijing involved too

India, however, is not alone in "meddling" in
Nepal's politics. Rival China seems to be at it
too. The end of monarchy in Nepal was a huge blow
to the Chinese, as Nepal's kings have
traditionally been closer to Beijing than Delhi,
the latter having supported the pro-democracy
struggles. In 2005, for instance, King Gyanendra
initiated the successful effort to get China into
the South Asian Association for Regional
Cooperation as an observer, much to India's chagrin.

Then when the Maoists came to power, China
successfully wooed Prachanda. His exit was a
setback to Chinese influence. The Chinese are
just as determined as the Indians to see that
they have a "friendly face" at the helm in
Kathmandu, someone they can count on to crush the
increasing activity of the “free Tibet” movement
in Nepal. Hence their support for the Maoists.
Prachanda is reported to have met Chinese
officials repeatedly in recent months.

China has matched India's every step in Nepal. In
2007, for instance, when India reportedly helped
form the Terai-Madhes Loktantrik Party, Beijing
deepened its interaction with the Madhesi Jana
Adhikar Forum, even sending a Chinese to its annual conference last year.

The Chinese role in the current impasse was laid
bare recently when journalists in Kathmandu
received a tape of a telephonic conversation
between the Maoists' foreign affairs cell chief
Krishna Bahadur Mahara and an unidentified
Chinese official, wherein Mahara is heard asking
for 500 million rupees (US$11.2 million) to
secure the votes of 50 members of parliament,
apparently from the Madhesi parties, for Prachanda.

Beijing has not concealed its unhappiness with
India's enhanced role. "Nepal must be able to
solve its problems on its own without outside
interference, and China takes every such
interference seriously," He Yong, a member of the
central secretariat of the Communist Party of
China who led a 21-member delegation to Nepal, is
reported to have said during meetings with the
Nepali president, acting prime minister and the Maoist leader.

China has never hesitated to pressure Nepal's
government to act against Tibetan activists. A
little over a fortnight ago, Chinese pressure
forced Nepalese authorities to crack down on an
attempt by Tibetans to vote in elections for a
new government-in-exile. Police confiscated
ballot boxes midway through the poll.

More embarrassing for the Nepali government was
the pressure it was subjected to when President
Ram Baran Yadav planned to visit a Buddhist
monastery in Boudha last year to inaugurate the
centenary celebrations of a Buddhist monk.
Chinese officials in Kathmandu warned the
government that the visit would be interpreted in
Beijing as aiding and abetting anti-Chinese
activities. President Yadav canceled his visit an
hour before his scheduled arrival at Boudha.
Boudha is home to a large number of Tibetan refugees.

While Chinese influence in Nepal is growing,
India has only itself to blame for its dwindling
clout in Kathmandu. Its misreading of the Maoists
and its stubborn reluctance to accept them as a
part of Nepal's democratic arena has pushed them into China's waiting arms.

"India has lost the plot" in Nepal, Varadarajan
observed. It has allowed "the paranoia and tunnel
vision of its security and intelligence
establishment to compromise its long-term strategic interests" in the region.

Meanwhile, reports indicate that Nepal's deposed
King Gyanendra is fishing in the country's
troubled waters too, and is seeking to make a
political comeback. He will be looking for
powerful patrons. India and China are wading ever
deeper into Nepal's political swamp. Which of
them will succumb to the temptation of biting the ex-king's bait?

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.
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