Friday, May 3, 2013

Desperate to mend ties, Dahal was all sweetness with India


UCPN (Maoist) Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal continues to hog media headlines for his remarks, often controversial ones. He dominated the headlines again this week not only for his ´trilateral cooperation´ proposal between India, Nepal and China, but also for his visit to India after five years of ´bittersweet´ relations with the southern neighbor. The visit is widely seen as Dahal´s bid to mend his strained relations with India, especially after the UCPN (Maoist) launched what they called ´a struggle for national sovereignty and civil supremacy´ following an unsuccessful attempt by the then Maoist-led government to sack army chief Rookmangud Katawal back in 2009.
Upon his arrival at Tribhuvan International Airport on Tuesday after a four-day visit to India, Dahal told media that the visit was successful in building an environment of trust between the Maoists and India. The leader of the former rebel party could successfully convey to the Indian leadership that his party had now chosen peaceful democratic polity over aggressive nationalism and also took the opportunity to propose a new chapter of friendly relations. The kind of confidence Dahal has been demonstrating and the kind of remarks he has been making after his meeting with top Indian leaders including Prime Minister Manamohan Singh, Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid and main opposition party Bharatiya Janata Party Chairman Raj Nath Singh, among others, are understandable enough.

India midwifed the 12-point Agreement between the then Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoists in November 2005, paving the way for the Maoists to join mainstream politics. But to India´s dismay, the Maoists developed cold feet with India when they emerged as the single largest party after the 2008 Constituent Assembly elections. The events leading up to the May 4, 2009 resignation of Dahal from the post of prime minister over his controversial decision to sack the then army chief was a tipping point for relations between the Maoists and India. The subsequent hurling of shoes at then Indian ambassador to Nepal Rakesh Sood and targeting of various Indian joint ventures had had only accentuated the differences between India and the Maoists.

What has remained unique on the part of Dahal this time round is that he was ´all sweetness´ with the Indian political leadership. Already having refrained from terming "domestic reactionary forces backed by India" as the principal enemy of the party in the political document endorsed by the Hetauda General Convention earlier this year, Dahal neither mentioned the 1950 treaty nor did he raise the issue of Indian interference in Nepal´s internal affairs, something his party used to keep harping on. Let alone raising other irritating factors such as border disputes, the issue of ´illegally operation´ of the Indian embassy´s ´field office´ in Biratnagar --something his own party colleague and former Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Narayan Kaji Shrestha has been raising vociferously-- did not figure in any of his meetings. The only thing he repeatedly said at different meetings and forums during his stay in New Delhi is: "We are in the process of learning. We want to move ahead by correcting the mistakes and shortcomings we have had in the past."

All this substantiates a candid observation made recently by a senior Indian foreign ministry official before Nepalese journalists. "Nepalese politicians come to us not with the agenda of broader national interests of Nepal, but often with petty personal and partisan interests."

Dahal apparently had no national agenda in hand and he had nothing to say about how he wanted to redefine Nepal-India relations so that these two countries can enjoy ´problem-free´ relations. What our leadership must not forget is we do have certain issues with India and they need to be resolved amicably without any further delay. This requires being honest and frank in sharing the concerns we have and putting forth our views to the Indian side for resolving them. Negotiations between the two sides can eventually yield anamicable solutions to the problems. The recent border incursion by Chinese security forces in India-held Depsang Valley in the Ladakh region should be a lesson for both India and Nepal that keeping border issues in status quo for long could only breed problems and tensions in future.

It is high time India also pondered why there is so much of anti-Indian sentiment in Nepal despite it being a great development partner. Many critics in Nepal say the ´magnanimous´ India often falls short when it comes to petty issues, giving grounds for ´nationalist´ elements to blow the issue out of proportion. For instance, the Indian embassy´s ´field office´ is currently one of the main issues for protest by various agitating political parties in Nepal. The field office was set up to facilitate vehicular movement through Indian territory when a section of the road on the Nepal side was disrupted by the massive flood in 2008. Though there was an agreement to close the office after the damaged road section was repaired,the Indian side relocated that office to Biratnagar and shown no sign of closing it even though the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has twice written to it to close the office as this was no longer necessary. There is also concern that India tends to micro-manage developments in Nepal.

That neighbors ought to work together in a spirit of mutual accommodation and that engagement is a two-way street are facts no one can deny. Nepal and India should internalize these verities and act accordingly in the days ahead. Nepal as a poor country sandwiched between two emerging economic superpowers, can serve her larger interests only by becoming good friends to both India and China and playing a catalytic role in further enhancing "constructive cooperation" between these two countries. India´s desire for the same can be understood from the remarks of Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid to visiting Nepalese journalists last week: "You [Nepal] be friends and tell them [China] to be good to India also. And if you like to tell us to be good to them, let us all be good to each other. But please do not give them [China] anything that will hurt India." This will not only ensure political stability and development in Nepal, but also in entire South Asia. Also, it will eventually help realize the trilateral cooperation that Nepal wishes to see.

While centuries-old interaction at the level of the people has continued to strengthen Nepal-India relations despite some occasional hiccups at the political level, track II diplomacy has also played an equally important role in cementing our ties. But what seems missing for further enhancing our relations is direct communications between the Nepalese and Indian political leadership. Experience shows that communications through bureaucratic channels often leave the Indian political leadership unable to properly understand the issues Nepal has with India. Hence, there is a need on the part of the Nepalese political leadership to cultivate friendship with Indian leadership and develop personal relations. It is to be hoped that Chairman Dahal and other senior Nepali politicians will be able to develop better rapport with their Indian counterparts and use that rapport not just for personal and partisan interests, but in the broader interests of Nepal and the Nepalese people.

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