Saturday, February 05, 2005

ANALYSIS: Kingdom's Comeback


+ King Gyanendra's decision sent shockwaves reverberating right through New Delhi and Dhaka. On Wednesday afternoon, February 2, Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran called up his Bangladeshi counterpart to convey Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's inability to attend the SAARC summit, slated for February 6-7. In it was a message both for Bangladesh and Nepal. To Dhaka, New Delhi was communicating its alarm at Bangladesh's deplorable slide into religious radicalism and political violence. It's obvious India has a range of levers in Nepal to effect course correction. Less clear are the instruments available to New Delhi to bring Dhaka into compliance. +


05/02/2005


Kingdom's Comeback
India sends strong signals against the royal coup in Nepal and rising fanaticism in Bangladesh
V. SUDARSHAN

From the moment King Gyanendra dissolved Nepal's parliament on May 22, 2002, the world's only Hindu nation began a long crawl away from democracy. Last Tuesday, February 1, the king sent his kingdom hurtling into the abyss of absolute monarchy, through a statement read, poker-faced, on the national television. He announced he had dismissed prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, clamped emergency on the country, suspended fundamental rights, and was assuming all executive powers. King Gyanendra justified his decision saying that the Deuba government had neither begun the process of conducting election by April, nor had it restored peace to the country racked by Maoist violence.

Armoured carriers began patrolling Kathmandu and troops surrounded the houses of important political leaders. Telephone and internet connections were snapped, and flights into the city were cancelled, cutting off the Himayalan kingdom from the world. Soon after his dismissal, Deuba told reporters, "We'll oppose this step. The move directly violates the constitution and is against democracy." Opposition leader Madhav Nepal remarked, "If the king was really acting in the interests of the people, he could have talked to us and showed his concern over the worsening situation here." And the Maoist rebels, who have kept Nepal's cauldron simmering for nine years now, derisively dubbed the king's action as a sign of "feudal autocracy" and attempts to push Nepal back to the 15th century.

King Gyanendra's decision sent shockwaves reverberating right through New Delhi and Dhaka. On Wednesday afternoon, February 2, Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran called up his Bangladeshi counterpart to convey Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's inability to attend the SAARC summit, slated for February 6-7. In it was a message both for Bangladesh and Nepal. To Dhaka, New Delhi was communicating its alarm at Bangladesh's deplorable slide into religious radicalism and political violence. For Kathmandu, the message was of strong disapproval of the king's machinations. India had been, before February 1, repeatedly conveying to him that it would be unwise of him to take over the reins of the country, that Nepal's best bet for stability lay in negotiating with the Maoists who control vast swathes of Nepal and bringing them into the political mainstream.

King Gyanendra, obviously, had other ideas. Always known to have nursed deep resentment against his brother Birendra Bir Bikram Shah for adopting parliamentary democracy in 1990, Gyanendra was provided the chance of putting the clock back at the time he was crowned the 13th king of the Shah dynasty in June 2001. Then a royal massacre had, miraculously, eliminated almost the entire royal lineage except his. After dissolving the Nepali parliament in May 2002, Gyanendra went on to dismiss Deuba, who was the PM then also, in October and appointed L.B. Chand as PM. These were early signs of the monarch's overweening ambition to wield executive power himself.

India's policy was to convince the king that there had to be a political effort to solve the Maoist problem and, simultaneously, persuade the Maoists that they couldn't emerge victorious; that it was time for them to translate their gains into procuring a stake in democracy. It was then that India began arresting Nepali Maoists in India, hoping to pressure them into eschewing violence and accepting political negotiations.

Privately, the king had been always contemptuous of Nepal's experiment with multi-party democracy. His argument: an underdeveloped country should first develop economically before democratising. Look where democracy has got Nepal, he once asked.He said it was his belief that only the Shah dynasty, which had ruled for over 200 years, could provide the stability for ushering in prosperity.

Over the past few months, New Delhi had watched with growing dismay the king's politics of attrition with Sher Bahadur Deuba, who had been reappointed PM on June 2, 2004. In the last three years, India had helped modernise the Royal Nepal Army (RNA), directly under the king's control. Despite the Rs 350 crore New Delhi invested in the RNA, it didn't become proactive, neither going on aggressive patrolling nor securing, at the very least, the vital industrial heartland from the Maoists. In fact, the Maoists demonstrated their ability to bring Kathmandu to a standstill through a mere announcement of economic blockade—and not even caring to enforce it.

Less than a week before the SAARC summit, the king struck. New Delhi thought the timing was insidious: by himself sharing the stage at the SAARC summit with six other regional leaders, Gyanendra would be able to tell his people that his coup had won the region's endorsement. No wonder, New Delhi had to take a quick decision on whether Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should visit Dhaka.

The situation in Bangladesh, in New Delhi's view, was as much a cause of concern as it was in Nepal. For over a year, New Delhi had watched with concern the killings of those opposed to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led government. When former finance minister S.A.M.S. Kibria was killed in a grenade attack on January 28, the concern grew into alarm. This bloody incident had been preceded by a string of attacks last year: the shooting dead of Ehsanullah Master; a grenade attack on Suranjit Sengupta, a sitting MP; and on August 21, the bombing of former prime minister Sheikh Hasina's rally.

Also, on April 2 last year, New Delhi came to know that a weapons shipment large enough to arm, according to diplomats, half an army division, had landed in the Chittagong jetty of Chittagong Urea Factory Limited (CUFL). The arms were reportedly for Northeast insurgents operating out of Bangladesh. Since the CUFL is under the direct control of minister of industry Motiur Rehman Nizami, whose Jamaat-e-Islami is part of the ruling coalition, a direct government role in the shipment was naturally assumed.

In not visiting Dhaka, the Manmohan government has sought to create room for diplomatic and political manoeuvre on three fronts: SAARC, Bangladesh and Nepal. In Nepal, much will depend on the king's reaction in the coming days. New Delhi would like to hear from the king a coherent explanation for his precipitous decision and a realistic roadmap to usher in peace and stability, especially as he has now managed to alienate both the political parties as well as the Maoists. Also, the monarchy itself may have now become more vulnerable, as has the RNA which will now also have to perform functions like policing besides fighting the Maoists.

So far, the Indian policy has been based on the premise that constitutional monarchy and multi-party democracy are the twin pillars of Nepal's stability; that the Maoists are part of Nepal's problems; that they have linkages with ultra Left groups in India and therefore pose a substantial security threat to it as well.

But this perspective may have to be revised. Says S.D. Muni, a professor in Jawaharlal Nehru University, "I think we are demonising the Maoists. They had pleaded with India in 2001 to be recognised as genuine protesters. It's time to engage the Maoists openly and positively." Adds Arvind Deo, India's envoy to Kathmandu between 1986 and 1989, "The RNA cannot beat the hell out of the Maoists without risking a civil war. Political problems must necessarily have political solutions.Political solutions must have credible economic underpinnings. The Indian government may have to look for an alternative dispensation in Kathmandu. " Also, as Nepal grapples with the latest developments, India, according to Muni, faces another challenge: "How to keep the international community behind India? Americans will find it hard to abandon Nepal to India's pleasure."

Perhaps New Delhi must think of a new paradigm for Indo-Nepal relations. Says A.N. Ram, who as joint secretary handled Nepal in the early eighties, "You have to formalise the border. You have to treat Nepal as you would any other country. Not on sentiments alone. Let Nepal not have it both ways. Let them pay commercial prices for products from India. The privileges they are getting from this special relationship cannot be one-sided."

It's obvious India has a range of levers in Nepal to effect course correction. Less clear are the instruments available to New Delhi to bring Dhaka into compliance.