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A policy in search of a rationale

Siddharth Varadarajan

With the Foreign and Defence Ministries at loggerheads, it isn't surprising that India took 17 days to confirm King Gyanendra's statement in Jakarta that military supplies to Nepal would continue.

THE MANMOHAN Singh Government's decision to formally announce the lifting of its embargo on military supplies to Nepal marks the end of the first chapter of a passionate — and sometimes acrimonious — internal debate in which the External Affairs and Defence Ministries squared off against each other.

At stake are not just safari-suited — or uniformed — egos, or even the question of military aid to Nepal. For what the King's February 1 palace putsch has done is triggered the most sweeping reassessment of India's Nepal policy since 1990. Influential sections in New Delhi are now beginning to think of what life in the Himalayan kingdom might be like without the king. Officially, India still clings to the twin-pillar formula — that constitutional monarchy and multi-party democracy are equally crucial for Nepal's political stability. But privately, senior officials say that the King and his ambitions are the root cause of the instability in his country. "Of course we believe in the twin pillars," one senior official told me recently, "but if we have to choose between Nepal and the monarchy, India is going to choose Nepal."

To be sure, this assessment is not universally shared within the upper echelons of the Government. On February 1, officials in the Ministry of External Affairs were quite clear that the King's action was a shameless power grab aimed at undoing the 1990 Constitution and turning the clock back to the bad old days of the panchayat era. Never comfortable with the King's decision to dismiss Parliament in the first place, the MEA argued that now was the time to take a tough line in favour of democracy. This assessment was shared by other sections of government, notably the National Security Council Secretariat. But even as the issue of an arms embargo began to be openly debated, a counter-view surfaced which sought to portray the palace takeover as essentially a defensive action aimed at dealing with the Maoist insurgency.

Working on parallel tracks, King Gyanendra sought to use all his royalist and military connections in India as a means of pressing his case with New Delhi. Had the BJP still been in power at the Centre, the Nepal king would doubtless have activated the `Hindu' network of his friend Vishnu Hari Dalmia as well. Be that as it may, he nevertheless did manage to get a number of individuals with `royal' or `Gurkha' connections to lobby for him in the corridors of power.

With most opposition leaders in jail and the palace clamping down on media freedom, the Manmohan Singh Government wisely decided to announce an arms embargo. Given the internal divisions, however, it also chose to be guarded and ambiguous in making that announcement — perhaps to make room for a future U-turn. "Let me give you the correct and exact position," the MEA spokesman was instructed to say on February 22. "The issue of military supplies to Nepal has been under continuous review taking into account the evolving situation in that country. In view of the current disturbed conditions in Nepal, it is a fact that no military supplies have been delivered since the 1st of February 2005."

The "correct and exact" words are important here. What was being announced was not a policy but a statement of "fact". "That no military supplies have been delivered," and that the reason for this was not the palace coup or the state of emergency but merely "the current disturbed conditions in Nepal."

Preoccupation with ambiguity

It was obviously the same cultivated but clumsy preoccupation with ambiguity that led Dr. Manmohan Singh's advisers to have him inform the press in Jakarta on April 23 that the question of military supplies to Nepal was being looked at "in the proper perspective." The fact that this formulation — as unhelpful as it was tautological — came hours after King Gyanendra told reporters in Jakarta he had received "specific assurances" from the Prime Minister that military supplies would continue only heightened suspicions that New Delhi had something to hide.

That countries make U-turns in policy is not surprising. The least that one can expect for a country that wants a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council, however, is that it not shy away from providing a rationale for its policy switch. Instead, all we got was studied silence. If it took the Government of India 17 days to confirm something that the Nepalese monarch had already announced, the only logical explanation is the deep divide which exists between the MEA and MoD on the issue. The Cabinet Committee on Security finally puts its imprimatur on the resumption of military supplies on May 6. But even now, say officials involved in the process, there is enough fuzziness in the decision to ensure the bureaucratic tug-of-war continues for some time.

Officially, the Government says it has only undertaken to transfer supplies that were already in the pipeline. Though this is not being articulated publicly, senior officials also insist the supplies being handed over are "non-lethal" and include, mainly, a handful of Casspir mine-resistant troop carriers, some refurbished trucks and bullet-proof jackets. When U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca stopped by in New Delhi earlier this week on her way to Kathmandu, she was told that no lethal supplies would be handed over for now. The Royal Nepal Army is anxious to replenish its stock of ammunition for the Indian-supplied INSAS rifle and has asked the Indian Army brass to expedite delivery; however, a decision on this issue is apparently still pending.

I asked a senior Defence Ministry official about the Army's view on supplying arms to Nepal. The problem, he said, was that there were too many views, that every general with any Gurkhas serving under him considered himself an expert on Nepal and its problems. But the Indian Army had institutional links with the RNA and was not keen that these be jeopardised. Indeed, some officers see the Army's links with the RNA as an insurance policy for the retention of influence in a post-Gyanendra Nepal. Even in Nepalese army circles, there is little appetite to see Prince Paras crowned king. His son, Hridayendra, could be made regent with the RNA guaranteeing power. "The monarchy may or may not be there forever, but the Nepalese army will," seems to be the logic of those favouring the resumption of military aid. However, given the intense loyalty to the palace of Maj. Gen. Rukmangat Katuwal, the RNA's second-in-command, the links between the monarchy and the army may be stronger than many in India think.

The Gurkha factor

What has irritated the Government's Nepal watchers elsewhere on Raisina Hill is the claim by their uniformed counteraprts that the suspension of military supplies was lowering the morale of Gurkha soldiers in the Indian Army, or rendering their families in Nepal vulnerable to attack by the Maoists. For years, the MoD has refused to recruit Gurkhas settled in India into the Army, saying the recruitment of Nepalese Gurkhas provided India with `leverage' in Nepal; now it turns out, it is the King of Nepal who has all the leverage and India has none at all. Besides, the Gurkhas in the Indian Army have no ethnic or institutional ties to the soldiers in the RNA. "It's ridiculous. The whole issue is a red herring," an official said.

Regardless of the internal divisions, the UPA Government's decision to announce the resumption of military supplies could not have been more poorly timed, coming as it did on the day Nepal's factious political parties announced the formation of a joint platform against the King.

In Nepalese political circles, there is growing awareness of what King Gyanendra's political project really is. Under the guise of fighting the Maoists, he has already revived certain panchayat-era institutions like the anchaladhishes and chhetradhishes which allow the Palace to administer the country directly through handpicked zonal administrators. Old, discredited names from the panchayat era and even pre-panchayat era have come out of the woodwork such as Sharad Chandra Shah, who led the strong-arm tactics of the mandales against pro-democracy protestors in the 1980s.

The `lifting' of the emergency on April 30 has not made any material difference to the people of Nepal; indeed, the repressive apparatus of the King's regime has toughened in other respects. Before Gyanendra is further emboldened, the Indian Government must immediately reverse course and stop the further flow of any military supplies to him. Democracy is the future of Nepal. The King has made it amply clear that he does not want to be a part of that future.

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