He may have been right, about agencies developing ties and relationships with actors across the ideological and political spectrum. But there was surely more to it if the engagement was happening with a group that was supposedly hostile to India’s interests. Analysts have long pondered the connection between India and the Maoists.
It was also a time when everyone was talking to everyone else in Nepal. The RAW official I spoke to emphasized this point and argued that India could not be behind the curve. ‘We knew the Palace and Maoists had been in touch in the early years of the war and still retained contact through intermediaries. We knew that both factions in the NC — Sher Bahadur Deuba and Koirala — kept channels open with the Maoists. We knew that various Left leaders had met Maoists in India. We had consistently asked all parties and the Palace to work together against the Maoists, but they just did not understand the gravity of the situation. It was clear to us that, eventually, a political solution would need to be found. In statecraft, you build up leverage when you can.’
Those who were then serving in the Indian establishment take great pains to emphasize that being in touch could not be construed as support. And as proof, they point to how several Maoist leaders were arrested in India during that period. C. P. Gajurel ‘Gaurav’ was picked up in Chennai when he was travelling on a fake passport to England. The party’s ideologue, and Prachanda’s political guru, Mohan Vaidya ‘Kiran’, was arrested in Siliguri. The Maoist leader from the Madhes, Matrika Yadav, was arrested and handed over to Nepal. (Yadav’s arrest seems to have been a result of a difference in outlook between the IB [India's Intelligence Bureau] and RAW. The RNA [Royal Nepalese Army] had passed on information about Yadav to an IB official who was visiting Nepal with an Indian minister’s entourage; and a RAW functionary once mentioned to me how IB had ‘messed up’ by arresting a key source.) Upendra Yadav, who was known to be close to the Maoists, though his exact relationship with the party remained ambiguous, was picked up, but then mysteriously let off. Suresh Ale Magar, the ethnic theorist for the Maoist party, was arrested and so were Ram Karki, who had served as an important link of the party with India’s radical movements, and Bamdev Chhetri. Cases were filed against many Maoist cadres. It became a lot more difficult for the top leadership to travel in India as compared to the late 1990s.
The arrests caused a ripple within the Maoist organization. Despite the sporadic communication his party representatives had with Delhi, Prachanda was now convinced that the principal contradiction of the people was with the ‘expansionists’, meaning India. Worried about their safety, both he and Bhattarai returned to Rolpa in 2004 and began living in their base areas. Prachanda even announced that they would eventually have to fight a war with India, and called for trenches to be dug for that purpose. Bhattarai was uncomfortable with the rhetoric, for he continued to view the Palace and the monarchy as the key problem, the enemy which needed to be vanquished, not India. The tension had historical roots, with different schools of the Nepali Left prioritizing either ‘nationalism’ or ‘democracy’.
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2009-10: Like many other Nepalis, I was angered by India’s policy, actions and behaviour in that period. Having covered the political process day in and out, I had seen the depths to which the Indian establishment had plunged to isolate the Maoists, with little regard for the notions of sovereignty, democratic norms and processes, or political ethics. India’s actions appeared to confirm long-held apprehensions in Nepal that Delhi was not comfortable with any domestic force with a sizeable mass base, and one which refused to take dictation from the babus of South Block. Delhi’s desire to be in control of events and actors in Kathmandu has often preceded any other objective. In 1960, the Nehru-B. P. Koirala relationship had become uneasy when Koirala had struck out and asserted his strong and independent personality. In the 1990s, minor incidents disrupted India’s ties with the NC which eventually benefited the Palace. And now, India had a problem with the two forces who had been most successful in the 2008 elections—the Maoists nationally, and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) in the plains. It seemed India really wanted pliant agents, and was just not mature enough to deal with autonomous political agents in a neighbouring country.
I asked a thoughtful RAW official why they could not let go and allow domestic processes in Nepal to play out, irrespective of outcomes, without meddling. ‘If you have an open border, there has to be a special security relationship. We could have lived with a Maoist dictatorship if it was 5,000 miles away but, across an open border, we cannot risk it.’
What India was attempting with the Maoists was not a simplistic strategy of isolation, though. It was emulating a highly sophisticated tradition of statecraft it had practiced, with mixed results, in Kashmir with the Hurriyat Conference and, in the Northeast, with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah). Engage, coerce, divide, frustrate, exhaust, corrupt, lure, repeat the cycle, and give nothing. It had never stopped talking to the Maoists even when the war of words was at its worst. It had isolated them to show them the high costs of not listening to advice. It had encouraged Baburam Bhattarai as a counter to Prachanda in order to sharpen the divisions within the party.
It had created a situation where the leadership could deliver nothing to the cadre, frustrating them and increasing the gulf between the top and the bottom. It offered inducements and showed the benefits of cooperating and playing along with the existing political-economic networks. And it kept up the strategies until the incentives for the other side changed, and caused a transformation in its behaviour which suited the establishment.
[...] this time, India was intervening not in favour of universal values but to influence outcomes in a fragmented but democratic political landscape. There was no reason for Delhi to play favourites among Nepali politicians, for no one—including the Maoists—had harmed India’s security interests. They could have let domestic political processes take their own course instead of preventing a natural equilibrium from emerging. For a neighbour to actively intervene in order to try and kill another country’s elected institution, and target one political force, went beyond any acceptable norm of inter-state relations.
But the Nepali Maoists, despite this baggage, had come around to the new political reality. They had participated in the elections and won legitimately. Despite sporadic incidents, they had allowed a free and extremely critical press to flourish. They had given up their base areas and opened it up to political competition so that other political parties could operate there. They had dissolved their parallel courts and had agreed to have their former army put into cantonments. Prachanda had resigned when faced with an uncomfortable political situation, and was making a bid to return to power by gaining a majority on the floor of the house.
2011: There was also a change of personnel in the Indian establishment. And as we had seen in 2005-06, individuals played a major role in shaping policy. Sanjeev Tripathi had taken over RAW in January 2011, and he was understood to be in favour of reengaging with the Maoists. Alok Joshi had taken over as special secretary who looked after key neighbouring countries. Joshi had served as the station chief in Nepal between 2008 and 2010. A product of JNU, and an Indian Police Service officer from the Haryana cadre, he had sharp political sense and knew the lay of the land in Nepal.
RAW did not believe in giving the Maoists a blank cheque and recognized the importance of challenging them in order to get them to deliver on commitments. But it could also see that the experiment of keeping the Maoists out of power had perhaps outlived its utility, and the Indian position needed revision. It argued to the national security advisor, Shiv Shanker Menon, that the Maoists should be given ‘one final chance’.
Rakesh Sood had left Kathmandu for Paris, and the new ambassador, Jayant Prasad, had not yet arrived in Kathmandu. A soft-spoken, brilliant diplomat, with uncanny political sense and a commitment to basic democratic ethos, Prasad had an old Nepal connection. His father, Bimal Prasad, a former professor in JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University], had been India’s envoy to Kathmandu in the early 1990s and had a reputation of being close to the NC. But Jayant Prasad had visited Nepal only once during his father’s tenure and carried little baggage. A ‘free-thinker’ in his student days in JNU, where he distinguished himself academically, Prasad could empathize with broad socialist and Left political thinking, but carried no dogma. While Prasad did not take charge till August-end, Sood’s departure had already helped to partially detoxify the India-Maoist relationship.
Prachanda had met senior Indian intelligence officials during his trips to various Southeast Asian cities through the summer of 2011. In early August, they met in Kuala Lumpur where Prachanda once again committed to completing the peace process as soon as the Maoists led the government. He briefed them on internal tensions within the party, and said that after Khanal resigned, the Maoists would put forward Baburam Bhattarai as the party’s prime ministerial candidate. Indian officials are learnt to have told him that they would not object if the Maoists observed all democratic processes and mustered a majority on the floor of the house. This was a significant meeting in rebuilding the relationship between the two sides. While the mistrust was deep, both sides were slowly inching back to the more nuanced approach they had with each other between 2005 and 2008. To borrow Prachanda’s metaphor, the warmth may not have returned, but there was a thaw. A rapprochement was on the horizon.
Would it finally enable the successful accommodation of the Maoists into the formal power structure? Would it help integrate the Maoist combatants into the NA [Nepalese Army] — an issue which was at the heart of the tensions over the UN’s role in Nepal, over General Katawal’s dismissal, over the Maoists’ re-entry into government, and the yardstick for whether the rebels had indeed transformed into a democratic force? Would it finally push forward the Constitution-writing project, which had been in limbo as power games overwhelmed Kathmandu politics? Would the renewed engagement between India and the Maoists bring back the focus on the core political goal of restructuring the Nepali state and Nepali nationalism?
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The NC was now in panic mode. Ambassador Sood had completed his tenure in Kathmandu and had left a few months earlier. This had weakened the voice of the MEA within the establishment, which was more averse to giving the Maoists a chance. RAW, on the other hand, had veered towards allowing the Maoists another chance. They had not encouraged the Madhesi parties—but the ‘agency’, as Kathmandu politicians called RAW, had not discouraged them either. Left to domestic factors, the NC realized that there was little that would stop the Madhesi parties from choosing the more attractive option.
The NC now used all its political capital to get India involved on their side. The former party leader, and now President, Ram Baran Yadav, shared a personal equation with finance minister and old political warhorse Pranab Mukherjee—the only senior political leader in Delhi who really paid attention to Nepal. They spoke to each other in Bangla—Yadav had attended school in Calcutta. President Yadav warned Mukherjee that the Maoists’ return to power would be dangerous, and they must help stop the Madhesis from voting for Bhattarai.
An Indian embassy official, upset with the [Nepali] President’s attempt to undercut the local mission and reach out directly to the political leadership, told me about this conversation and said that it had rattled Delhi. Surya Bahadur Thapa, the former prime minister who had excellent ties with Delhi’s political and bureaucratic elite, called up his interlocutors with a similar warning. Thapa’s grandson Siddhartha had become a close friend and, over coffee at Babar Mahal, Siddhartha expressed deep unease at the evolving Indian stance, as they saw it. Shekhar Koirala, G. P. Koirala’s nephew who had played an active role in the run-up to the signing of the 12-point Understanding, shared cordial ties with National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon. They had known each other since Menon’s time as a joint secretary handling Nepal in the mid-1990s. Koirala called up his old friend, urging India to get the Madhesis to support Poudel. He warned India that having the Maoists in power at this time would ensure that they remained in office if the CA ended without a Constitution having been finalized and that would have adverse consequences for Delhi. I met Koirala in the CA [Constituent Assembly] compound a few days later, and he confirmed to me that he had reservations about India’s position and felt that Delhi was making a mistake.
Delhi seems to have become worried by the multiple messages from friendly interlocutors. The political section of the Indian embassy now got into the act. They warned the Madhesi parties that the Maoists would deceive them, that their commitment to federalism was opportunistic, and that the parties of the plains must reconsider their options. The pressure could either have been born out of a desire to show to the NC that India was doing its bit, or born out of a genuine policy line to block the Maoists once again. Delhi ordered RAW, which was more open to the Maoists, to step back from the process.
Excerpted with permission from Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal, published by Aleph Book Company.