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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 44 New Delhi October 24, 2015

How Nepal was ‘Lost’: An Exquisite Foreign Policy Disaster in Kathmandu

Saturday 24 October 2015

by Harish Khare

These days, one can’t swing a dead cat in New Delhi without hitting a professionally wise person who can be relied upon to rapturously proclaim how Narendra Modi has “won” and “conquered” the West. But one is hard-pressed to find anyone who can explain how Nepal was “lost” on the Prime Minister’s watch. Nor will anyone be able to recall when it was last that Nepal chose to take its grievance against India to the United Nations. The correct answer: 1989.

It is the most glaring foreign policy disaster since May 2014. But we are pretending that it is all the Nepalese’ fault, and their loss, their funeral. We are confident of knocking the snot out of those snotty “upper-caste, Hill elite” who have, once again, colonised the Kathmandu power structure.

Let us revisit the optics. The Foreign Secretary is rushed to Kathmandu as the Prime Minister’s envoy and he carries with him a demarche. Leaders of three principal political parties — the Nepali Congress (NC), the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) and the United Communist Party of Nepal — are given the peremptory message: do not complete your almost complete Constitution-making exercise. Why? Because we think the proposed constitu-tional document is flawed. It is anchored in majoritarianism. We do not approve of it. We have at least six major suggestions as amend-ments. The Prime Minister’s envoy is heard politely. A few days later, the new Nepali Constitution is signed and promulgated. We sulkily “note” the new constitutional milestone. And then, proceed to wink at what the Nepalese call an economic blockade. A country that was so warm and open-hearted in welcoming the Prime Minister just six months ago is now hash-tagging at Back off India.

We feel righteously offended. How can these mainstream political parties forget all our hand-holding, nudging and hugging of all these years? How can they now gang up against New Delhi? In our new age of faux-machismo, we ask how dare the Nepalese ignore our preference. We are the new regional power. We have no doubts, and we are not afraid to use our clout. After all, we have been given the sheriff’s badge by none other than the sole superpower.

But snubbed we were. And, gloriously so. There is no other way to put it. And, perhaps it is just as well that this exquisite foreign policy disaster has come early enough. It throws light on the new warpedness that has come to define the policy-making process in New Delhi.

Unfortunately, the Nepal mess is one setback that cannot be laid at the door of the “duplicitous Pakistanis” or the “devious Chinese”. This is a disaster entirely of our own making. It is self-inflicted.

Let us look at the mess-makers. We have a very competent and experienced diplomat manning our embassy in Kathmandu. He is well versed with the nuances of the political power games that were in play throughout the Constitution-making exercise. As a consummate professional, he must have been keeping New Delhi in the loop.

Then, we have our “agencies” that have a reputation of having a ubiquitous presence in the Himalayan state. They are known to exercise considerable influence and power, both formal and informal, in Nepal’s ever-changing domestic alignments and relentless intrigues. Their input must have been available to the big bosses in South Block.

And, in the Ministry of External Affairs, we have a vast body of professional diplomats with considerable institutional memory and competence. They can be presumed to have remained watchful about the developments in Nepal.

We are also fortunate to have a hands-on National Security Adviser, who is capable of multi-tasking and micro-managing, from crowd-control at Yakub Memon’s funeral to a hot pursuit of insurgents in Myanmar. The services and advice of a couple of very able Foreign Service officers in the PMO are also available to the NSA.

And, on top of that, we have a web of extensive engagements between our political crowd and the Nepali lot. And most importantly, we have the RSS-VHP and assorted Hindu groups who have always made it their business to keep tabs on what till recently was “the only Hindu kingdom” in the world. Some even suggest that the foreign missions in New Delhi have come to regard the RSS’ commissar, Ram Madhav, as the shadow Foreign Minister.

All these assets and talents collectively give us a formidable edge over the other global players in Nepal. It is our backyard, we know the pitch and we know the ground and we have a fix on the crowd. Yet, we ended up taking our eye off the ball.

Since this is a government that takes considerable pride in its clarity and its cogency, it must be presumed that New Delhi knew exactly what kind of constitutional compact for Nepal would meet “our legitimate concerns”. Yet, it failed to make itself heard or felt. That, too, in our very backyard.

Nepal’s Constitution-making exercise was an open affair. And, we should have had a fairly good inkling of how the traditional “upper caste, Hill elite” were trying to steer the power-sharing arrangement.

It was the perfect setting for a competent exercise of soft power. There is no dearth of legal talent and constitutional knowledge in India. Indian parliamentary officialdom’s core compet-ence could have been easily deployed to influence the course of constitutional choices. Yet, none of this happened. The Sherlock Holmesian dog did not bark.


Could it be that the sprawling Foreign Office bureaucracy is busy scheduling yoga classes rather than using its traditional tools of tradecraft to secure our core interests? Serious students of Indian foreign policy are getting concerned that the stylistic upheavals—all Modi personality-centric—have left the average IFS mandarin disoriented, breathless and befuddled. It has not helped Indian diplomacy that the External Affairs Minister is perceived to not carry any weight.

Could it be that the PMO has acquired such a lock on wisdom, initiative and preferences as to render dysfunctional the rest of the sprawling national security establishment? The Nepal fiasco is a lesson in the dangers of over-centralisation.

Could it be that New Delhi would have acted with finesse and subtlety had there not been a Bihar electoral calendar? The ham-handedness displayed towards Kathmandu can only be explained in the context of the struggle for the Patna gaddi. Petty and short-term electoral calculations were allowed to overshadow competent diplomacy. All our neighbours have noted that give New Delhi the slightest upper hand or leverage and it will breathe down heavily on them. Well, there goes the neighbourhood.

(Courtesy: The Tribune)

The author, a senior journalist who was the Chief of Bureau of The Hindu in New Delhi and Media Adviser to PM Manmohan Singh in the UPA I Government, is currently the editor of The Tribune in Chandigarh.