Wednesday, February 23, 2005

NEPAL: Going for broke

So far, the hard line has not worked. In the twenty-two, twenty-three days that Nepal has gone without Indian arms, there is no sign that Gyanendra is capitulating. But even as India rushes to reaffirm its democratic credentials, Nepal has made a dangerous pro-China move. Sometime ago, we reported that the US was threatening to raise the Nepal issue in the UN and other world forums. Nepal was communicated a threat of expulsion from the UN, WTO, and so on. Our current intelligence is that Nepal has approached China to veto any such threat. If China had said no, that would be news, but significantly, China has not said no.

Going for broke- When realpolitik is needed in Nepal, we pursue ideology.

23 February 2005: In the conduct of foreign relations, a country may insert ideology, or practise realpolitik. In the first Reagan term, America was harsh about imposing its ideology abroad, especially in Afghanistan against the occupying Soviets. Reagan, the CIA, and CIA director William Casey produced a dangerous cocktail of jihad and conservatism, and while the immediate purpose was served, driving out the Soviets, one of the derivatives of that cocktail, Osama Bin Laden, eventually turned against America, and masterminded the 9/ 11 bombings.

This is not to suggest ideology does not work, because ideology was important to shore up the sagged US image under Jimmy Carter when Iran was lost to the Khomeini revolution and the US embassy was stormed. But anything taken to an extreme can boomerang, signifying that there is no perfect way to conduct foreign relations, and that different imperfections in relations have to be repaired in different, perhaps imperfect, ways.

Before Reagan came with his Cold-War ideology, there was another way to conduct foreign relations, the Nixon way, and Nixon excelled at the game of realpolitik. There is easily more to Nixon than Watergate, and between Nixon and Kissinger, realpolitik was given amazing dimensions. It was realpolitik that led Nixon and America to accommodate with China and Russia, but more China, in 1972, using the good offices of Pakistan. General Yahya Khan, who was disgraced for losing East Pakistan in the 1971 war with India, was the first top broker of US-China relations, which Nixon capped with a visit to that country.

The broad basis of realpolitik was to remove moral or ideological considerations in foreign relationship-building. Pragmatism was the key, and you worked with what was there, and not how you wished it to be. Realpolitik flowed out of a realisation that the world could not always be reordered to your desires. Despite the First Gulf War, George Bush was more like Nixon in letting things be, while his son, the present president, has turned out in the mould of Reagan, an ideological warrior. It is ideology that lead to the war in Iraq and the present building hostilities against Iran, and the US pressure on King Gyanendra to restore democracy also flows out of ideology, although America has contradictorily coexisted for all these years with an untrustworthy dictator in Pakistan.

But it is India’s US-matching position on Nepal that is surprising, and a little odd, considering that the Indian Army is against any policy move that would push the king to the wall, and possibly into the arms of China. Yesterday, the foreign office disclosed that arms aid to Nepal, essential to fight the Maoist insurgents, had been cut off since 1 February, the day Gyanendra seized power.

Why the foreign office needed to make the arms cut off public is a mystery, because nothing is to be gained from it, except that India supports democracy, which is not exactly a state secret. But with the disclosure, there is much, if not everything, to lose. For one, Gyanendra has been put into a difficult position, where any concessions given would be viewed as capitulation. In his position, as commander-in-chief of the Royal Nepal Army (RNA), and leading the battle against the Maoists, he cannot afford to look small. For his own glory, foreign minister Natwar Singh has committed India to a hard line against Nepal.

So far, the hard line has not worked. In the twenty-two, twenty-three days that Nepal has gone without Indian arms, there is no sign that Gyanendra is capitulating. But even as India rushes to reaffirm its democratic credentials, Nepal has made a dangerous pro-China move. Sometime ago, we reported that the US was threatening to raise the Nepal issue in the UN and other world forums. Nepal was communicated a threat of expulsion from the UN, WTO, and so on. Our current intelligence is that Nepal has approached China to veto any such threat. If China had said no, that would be news, but significantly, China has not said no.

The Indian Army has always feared this employed China card in Nepal. From the first day of the royal coup, the army’s position has been not to put Gyanendra in a no-win situation, so that he is forced to embrace China, like Myanmar. The Indian Army is loath against any Chinese presence in Nepal, after losing the buffer of Tibet, and Gyanendra has a history of softness towards China. The Indian Army-trained RNA remains the bulwark against any Chinese expansion in Nepal, the RNA has at least served as early-warners this long, and military officials dread a situation where Indian opposition to the king pushes them against the RNA. “There is no doubt of the outcome,” said a defence official, “but the RNA is in the nature of a fraternal army. We have trained it with some long-term objectives. We cannot simply destroy those objectives in the pursuit of ideology.”

What it has boiled down to is this. As defence minister, Pranab Mukherjee reflects military thinking, which is not to precipitate the Nepal situation. On the opposite side stands Natwar Singh, who presumes great gains for India by internationalising the Nepal coup. The foreign office is congratulating itself for bringing the US and UK to condemn Nepal, although the diplomatic community gives a different spin, which is that America and Britain suborned India to its position. The point is not which side is right, but that the Indian position, of confronting the king, may be dreadfully wrong.

In 1991 when transit facilities were denied to Nepal, the Indian Army faced a situation of a Gurkha near-revolt. An army commanders’ conference had to be hurriedly abandoned after news broke out about a section of militating Gurkhas. In another confrontation with Nepal, history may repeat itself as tragedy. But Natwar Singh is hell bent on ramming his notions of diplomacy on the government, even if those notions combat the national interests of India. How can Natwar Singh justify palling up with General Parvez Musharraf and condemning King Gyanendra?

Being ideological or practicing realpolitik is a function of whether and how you can reorder the world. India failed to exercise its levers in Nepal when it couldn’t prevent Gyanendra’s takeover, and when commonsense tells you to indulge in realpolitik, ideology is shoved down everyone’s throat. An ideology that cannot be enforced is worthless, and now China is backing the king. By bringing in the US and UK, if the Indian foreign office is to be believed, we have lost or damaged our few levers in Nepal, and the mishandled events have greatly suited China.

It is a wonder that no one can stop the rampaging of Natwar Singh.