Indian flip-flop

Print edition : May 19, 2006

Indian Government's Envoy Karan Singh with King Gyanendra at the Narayanhiti Palace in Kathmandu on April 20. - BINOD JOSHI/AP

The Indian government managed to retain some credibility by going with popular sentiments despite its slipshod initial reaction.

WITH a democratic government now in place in Kathmandu and a ceasefire prevailing all over Nepal, India has reasons to be satisfied. In the third week of April, the situation in Nepal had threatened briefly to get out of hand. It was evident that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had failed to gauge the misgivings of the Nepalese people about the monarchy initially.

By accepting the proposals of Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Sitaram Yechury, all parties involved in the standoff played a key role in defusing the situation. Yechury's role has come in for praise from Nepalese politicians and media. The four-point "Yechury formula" called for the recall of Parliament on the understanding that it would announce elections to a Constituent Assembly. The other points related to implementing the 12-point agreement with the Maoists, inviting the Maoists for talks and Parliament taking legislative measures to undo the steps taken by the King.

The events of April showed that until the eleventh hour, India had tried to preserve the monarchy as one of the "two pillars" of Nepal's politics. Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran later tried some damage control by saying that it was up to the people of Nepal to decide on how to take the process of democratisation forward and that India did not "accept or refuse" King Gyanendra's initial offer to the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA). Shyam Saran said that India's position on the "twin-pillars" of democracy was the same as that of the people of Nepal. He said that it was "nothing more than what the people of Nepal and the political parties wanted" until recently. India, he emphasised, had all along supported multi-party democracy in Nepal. He recalled that India had condemned the King's dismissal of the civilian government in February 2005.

Yechury, given his widespread contacts across the political spectrum in Nepal, had offered his help to the UPA government but Prime Minister Manmohan Singh preferred to put his trust in Karan Singh. "It was a total fiasco. If the situation had been allowed to go out of control, either the monarchy would have been physically eliminated or there would have been a bloody massacre of the people," said Yechury. He was instrumental in convincing the Maoists to open dialogue with the Opposition parties. Back-channel contacts between the Indian government and the Maoists were opened largely by his efforts.

"The Maoists had given an explicit commitment to join the political mainstream, late last year," Yechury told Frontline. In the past six months, the CPI(M) leader was in Nepal three times. It was during his visit to the kingdom in January that the plans for nationwide pro-democracy demonstrations and strikes were first made in consultation with the SPA and the Maoists. Yechury had kept the Indian government informed about the plans of the SPA and the Maoists to take on the monarchy jointly in April.

Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who was in charge of Nepal policy as Manmohan Singh was on a foreign tour, seemed to have misread the gravity of the situation initially. As the demonstrations and protests were gaining momentum, Pranab Mukherjee was still harping on the importance of the monarchy. "The Indian government only acted when it realised the power of the people's movement," said Yechury. The Indian government used its influence with the Royal Nepal Army top brass, successfully dissuading the Army from helping the Palace to crush the popular uprising.

CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Sitaram Yechury at the first session of the reinstated Parliament in Kathmandu on April 28.-GAUTAM SINGH/AP

Manmohan Singh, who was on an official visit to Germany, welcomed the King's reinstatement of the Nepalese Parliament on April 24, quickly backtracking from the earlier Indian position. Speaking to the media in Berlin, he emphasised that the King should hand over "all executive powers" to a multi-party government. In a telephonic conversation with Yechury, Manmohan Singh congratulated the CPI(M) leader on his role in resolving the crisis. Similar views were echoed by Pranab Mukherjee. The Defence Minister described the installation of the new SPA government as "a victory for the people of Nepal". He said that India was ready to offer "unstinting support to the people of Nepal in whatever manner they wish".

The flip-flop in the Indian government's stance has come in for criticism from many quarters. Former External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh said in a statement that the Indian government's policies had "let the people of Nepal down, lost the goodwill of the seven political parties, earned the annoyance of the Maoists and earned no kudos from King Gyanendra". Natwar Singh was all praise for the "Yechury formula". Only the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to be opposed to it. Former Party president L.K. Advani said in the last week of April that India should ensure, "for the sake of national interests", that the Maoists should not in any way influence the democratic process in Nepal. He alleged that the Maoists were trying to set up a "red corridor" encompassing huge swathes of Indian territory.

Sitaram Yechury is confident that the intention of the biggest insurgent group in South Asia to demobilise and join the political mainstream will have a positive impact. He is of the opinion that there will be little political rationale left for the extremist groups in India to continue with their armed struggle. An unspoken fear in the Nepali and Indian establishments is that if the communist parties in Nepal team up with the Maoists and fight elections jointly, they would sweep the polls. From available indications, the Maoists are the only credible political force among the Nepalese. Almost all the other overground political parties have been tainted by corruption and have a history of making deals with the Palace.

The Maoist leadership in Nepal has committed itself to multi-party democracy provided a Constituent Assembly is elected, a republic is proclaimed and the King's powers are curbed. According to Sitaram Yechury, the Maoists are still "wary" about the intentions of the Palace and the role of the RNA. They want the Army to be placed under civilian control immediately. The United States administration has also refused to remove the "terrorist" label they have put on the Maoists. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher on an official visit to Nepal, said the Maoists would remain on Washington's "terror list". He said the Maoists continued to kill people and forcibly conscript people into their army. The U.S. wants the Maoists to be excluded from the political process. The U.S. Ambassador in Nepal has criticised the 12-point agreement between the SPA and the Maoists.

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