Writings in the Indian press: Why Nepal should read them between the lines

Mahabir Paudyal

  • Read Time 6 min.

The May 21 House of Representatives dissolution by President Bidya Devi Bhandari and Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli in Nepal has triggered outrageous comments in the Indian press. Indian diplomats, those who served as ambassadors in Kathmandu, have launched fierce attacks on Prime Minister Oli and his move to dissolve the House.

Since all these writers are retired foreign service officers of the Indian government one might dismiss them as mere personal opinions but there are prescriptions for Nepal and India, allegations and advice, and there is a nuanced pattern in their arguments.

On May 24, three days after the House dissolution, Ranjit Rae, who was the ambassador in Kathmandu during the 2015 blockade, objected to the whole scenario after December 20, 2020 House dissolution. “In no democratic country would a PM who has just lost confidence be reappointed and again asked to prove his majority within 30 days, a sure signal for horse-trading and corruption,” he wrote in The Hindustan Times.

Rae advised caution to Indian establishment while reminding it how India has been perceived to be “backing an autocratic and unpopular regime” of K P Oli. “India must publicly articulate its position in support of constitutional governance,” he wrote. Rae’s veiled suggestion: Watch out for what’s happening in Kathmandu and help the opposition parties.

On May 27, Rakesh Sood in The Hindu denounced PM Oli for ‘subverting’ the constitution. Nepal has seen nine PMs since 2008, he wrote, but “none has damaged the Constitution and the political fabric of Nepal as much as Mr. Oli, together with an obliging Ms. Bhandari.”

On May 29, 2021, Manjeev Singh Puri in The Tribune came out with a note of caution for India but he did not offer any prescriptions like two of his predecessors. We need to watch out “whether the developments in Nepal would turn out to be favorable for India with pointers of Oli’s dependence on an India-friendly grouping of MPs and his amending, through an ordinance, the citizenship law to benefit children born to Indian mothers, a long-standing demand in the Terai,” he wrote.

On May 29, Shyam Saran welcomed the citizenship ordinance in his The Indian Express article but again reminded New Delhi establishment that Oli is thought of as “India’s favorite, that he has promised the BJP government in Delhi that he will promote the return of Nepal to its Hindu rashtra status under the monarchy and keep the Chinese at bay.” In Kathmandu, he writes, there is a rumor “that India is working to bring back the monarchy to Nepal.”

Commenting on what he mentions as Indian government’s “studied silence on the current political developments in Nepal” he asks his government not to lose sight of “the political situation in Nepal and what would serve the interests of India best.” According to him, India must firmly and unambiguously declare that it does not support the revival of the monarchy and declare unconditional support to Nepal’s republican democracy.

On the same day Baburam Bhattarai and Atul K Thakur in their joint article in The Hindu called the events surrounding House dissolution as “a dangerous game plan by national and international forces to dismantle the federal democratic republican constitution and restore the old Hindu monarchical state.” The duo spoke of Oli being in collusion with RSS and Hindu monarchical forces and New Delhi backing the autocratic regime of Oli to turn “Nepal into a Hindu state and scrapping federalism.”

Commentators in India rarely depart from the government position when it comes to Nepal affairs. This time there seems to be a clear departure.

Bhattarai and Thakur also seem to suggest that Nepal could forgo its claim on Kalapani and Limpiyadhura if India provides some aid for development and helps bring down the Oli regime. “If the objective is to scrap the present constitution to undo the Kalapani-Limpiyadhura map episode, why throw the baby out with the bathwater?”, they wrote. “The India-Nepal boundary issue can be resolved through serious political dialogue. There should be a tradeoff between the development aspirations of Nepal and the strategic concerns of India, in the light of changing geopolitical dynamics in the Himalayan region.”

Why it matters

Usually, what an individual commentator writes in the press about the political development in another country need not be read too much between the lines but there is a specific context to what is being said, who are saying it and why they are saying it.

First, these commentators in India rarely depart from the official government position, especially of the Ministry of External Affairs, when it comes to Nepal affairs. Usually analysts and observers in New Delhi toe the MEA’s line. This time there seems to be a clear departure.

While MEA has noted “the recent political developments in Nepal” and called it “internal matters of Nepal to be dealt by them under their own domestic framework and democratic processes,” former ambassadors to Nepal suggest their government otherwise: Keep watching, get engaged with every other political force, do not back Oli, do not take a hands-off approach and so on. In other words, do intervene if necessary.

Here is a dichotomy we need to decipher. Nearly all former diplomats commenting on Nepal politics were the supporters of the 2015 blockade. They could have advised their government in 2015 against it and saved India from resentment, which many Nepalis still feel, that blockade generated in Nepal. Why they are opposing the ‘perceived’ Indian backing to Oli is a big question to a discerning mind.

The ambassadors commenting on Nepal affairs were also seen to be active in ‘micro-management’ of Nepal affairs. It must be noted that only Manjeev Singh Puri behaved differently in this respect and set a new norm.

On their part, Nepali leaders tend to drag India into what could be purely an internal matter as well. Prime Minister K P Oli once accused Pushpa Kamal Dahal of trying to topple him down on India’s support.  Then when Oli dissolve the House of Representatives on December 20, 2020, Dahal accused Oli of doing this at India’s behest.  These claims find quick acceptance in Kathmandu. Many in Kathmandu think that since the October 22, 2020 meeting between RAW chief Samant Goel and Prime Minister Oli, Oli has started turning toward India to save his regime, he is even said to have made some secret compromises. In an interview with Nepal Live Today on June 3 (a day before he was removed by PM Oli) Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali dismissed all such claims as distortion of truths but the perception that Goel visit charted the roadmap of political chaos for Nepal is deeply entrenched.

Nepal needs to watch and read reactions and prescriptions in Indian press, especially those coming from Nepal watchers, cautiously because they leave clues for us to know how they are thinking about Nepal. The opinions in Indian press shape the larger public opinion of India toward Nepal and influences India’s Nepal policy to some extent. It is even more important now because Oli has surrounded himself with “friends of India” in the cabinet, and he has handed the reign of foreign ministry to such a man who will have to learn its alphabet.

Indian establishment has had a record of playing a double role when it comes to the crisis in Nepal. In nearly all political transitions, India supports one or other faction that foments the crisis and when the crisis reaches a boiling point, certain groups in Nepal seek their intervention or India itself appears to mediate. Some of the Indian actors seem to abet the crisis by siding with one or the other forces and then appear to help solve that crisis later on. This has been the case from 1950 to 2007.

Gratification in Kathmandu

“Situation today is such that even if a glaring foreign intervention happens to remove Oli from power, there is going to be a celebration, it is going to be interpreted as done for the sake of the country,” I wrote this about Prime Minister K P Oli in October 31, 2020 in Republica. Back then the context was different.  Resentment was widespread, PM Oli with his usual condescending attitude had lost all appreciators and becoming unpopular every single day. But the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) was intact, we still had parliament.

When rulers in Kathmandu have blinded their vision for unaccountability, failed to govern and been averse to wise counsels, external actors have found a space to play from the position of deniability.

Today, as former diplomats in New Delhi are debating how to overthrow Oli there is a sense of schadenfreude here in Kathmandu. There was no rebuttal here, no alternative arguments until Bikash Sangraula presented a counterclaim.  Kathmandu is in a mood to hear more evils against the current government and its leader. After December 2020, Prime Minister Oli has given them enough reasons for that.   

This is also a case of how when the government resents the country’s intellectuals, they hesitate to take a position for the nation for their disdain for the government head.

On June 4, Oli reshuffled his cabinet once again. It seems he has not allowed a single minister to serve for more than two years at most. Nearly all the people he has picked as ministers are the discredited faces of Nepali politics. Further recipe for public resentment against the government.  

In Nepal’s political history, often when rulers in Kathmandu have blinded their vision, failed to govern, surrounded themselves with opportunists, scorned people, been averse to wise counsels, external actors have found a space to play from the position of deniability.

But it’s no use telling this to Oli. Benjamin Franklin used to say: Wise men don’t need advice, fools won’t take it.