The cynical intent evident in how the United States is cosying up to the Narendra Modi regime despite India’s rapid democratic retreat finds reflection in the Indian government’s enthusiasm in laying out the red carpet for Pushpa Kamal Dahal, including during the Nepali Prime Minister’s visit to India this week.
Washington DC sees India as a buffer against a rising China and is willing to deal with whoever is in charge in New Delhi. Likewise, the Indian political bosses see Nepal as a country that must be kept from Beijing’s grasp and one that must serve as a place for Hindutva activism with an eye to the 2024 general elections. Who better than Dahal to do the favours?
Known widely by his nom de guerre “Prachanda”, Nepal’s prime minister sees himself making up for his party’s weakness in terms of parliamentary strength by getting into Modi’s embrace, while India’s prime minister sees in Dahal a malleable leader more than willing to act on suggestions. In this sense, they have found each other.
For its own ends, New Delhi has pulled all stops to intervene among the political parties of Nepal to ensure that the acerbic KP Oli of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) is kept out of office for taunting the Hindutva brigade in India more than once, including by making the claim that Ram was born on Nepali soil.
While once trusted warily by New Delhi, Oli is also the one who pushed through a constitutional amendment to include the Limpiyadhura-Lipulek area in the official map of Nepal, a place that has remained in Uttarakhand in Indian maps.
Dahal has been an opportunist firebrand ultra-nationalist – opportunist because he can and will jettison principle at any turn for he is unencumbered by political ideology. His sole intent is political survival for which he will turn to anyone who can provide him with the elixir.
The Maoist commandante spent much of the conflict years in safe houses in Noida even as his party’s key demands while going underground in February 1996 ranged from the abrogation of the 1950 Nepal-India treaty to a ban on Indian cinema and Indian vehicles.
While he was calling upon the party cadre to prepare for an impending Indian invasion by building tunnels at the border, Dahal and his deputy Baburam Bhattarai were writing letters to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee asking for reprieve to operate within India, following that up with letters, as directed, to Indian intelligence agencies.
When he soured of New Delhi, Dahal would publicly deride India as “bideshi prabhu” (foreign lord). But as he saw Indian intervention escalate in 2022 he decided to flip again, and suggested that it was best for Nepal to have a government that was “comfortable” for India – his own term in English. For his current visit, the prime minister gave up a Chinese invitation to the Boao Summit, wanting to please Modi by making his first foreign trip as prime minister to New Delhi.
India’s Vinay Kwatra, ambassador to Nepal until his appointment as Foreign Secretary, is knowledgeable about the weightage of Kathmandu politicians, and the decision in New Delhi seems to be to utilise Dahal as much as things can be pushed. The first indication that he was favoured came with the red carpet welcome given by Bharatiya Janata Party President JP Nadda at the party headquarters in July last year. Kathmandu’s intelligentsia was suitably impressed by this bestowal of public support.
Fixers and dons
There are still a few intellectuals in India who see Pushpa Kamal Dahal as a principled Naxalite-like ideologue simply because of his “Maoist” tag. But Dahal’s plan all along was to use the Maoist cadre as sacrificial stepping stones to blackmail his way into mainstream politics – what he could not achieve through the ballot back in the early 1990s.
In above-ground politics since 2006, Dahal has made himself approachable to fixers and dons and made good use of the exchequer in the name of “management or arms and armies”. He has dallied with the Chinese when it served his purpose and built a comfortable barricade of family members as his immediate coterie.
While there are many other triggers, over the past two decades, together with Indian adventurism in Kathmandu, Dahal has been the principal cause of the political instability that has kept Nepal’s economy from moving into a prosperity phase.
With its Himalayan positioning and the bilateral open border, Nepal is vital to India, also because it is the seventh-biggest remittance-sending country, besides the fact the poorest parts of India sit astride Nepal. Yet, there is disinterest about Nepal affairs among New Delhi’s opinion-makers and editorialists, who also neglect India’s own Simanchal.
Meanwhile, there is willingness to follow South Block directives on Nepal, and in the present instance, how not to ask Dahal uncomfortable questions when he comes calling. How to manage the Maoist supremo is of course a Nepali problem, but New Delhi’s cynical positioning makes him seem taller than he is and it has become too much to ask India to leave Nepal alone.
The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) came above ground in 2006, and when Nepal went into elections without the rebels being disarmed in 2008, they became the largest party in Nepal’s Constituent Assembly (which also served as Parliament). The three general elections since have seen the steady decline of the party, which has been led by supremo Dahal for three decades now.
The November 2022 elections saw the Maoists gaining 32 seats out of a Parliament of 275 members, or 11%, with 18 seats through direct elections. Far ahead, the Nepali Congress became the largest party counting both first-past-post seats and proportional seats, closely followed by the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist).
In December, Dahal first went to lead a government with Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), but then the Indian apparatchiks went into overdrive in Kathmandu, added a trip by Foreign Secretary Kwatra to bang party heads together.
Among other things, this resulted in the election of the Nepali Congress’s Ram Chandra Poudel as president, in the hope that the new head of state would be “pliable” unlike the previous president, Bidya Devi Bhandari. Before two months were over, the Unified Marxist-Leninist fell by the wayside, and Dahal was leading a government with the Congress and most of the other parties in Parliament.
The current government is more one engineered by New Delhi than representing the people’s mandate, using former prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s abject tilt towards New Delhi and the American West – his first refrain on matters brought before him tends to be to ask if New Delhi would be displeased.
Indian influence in Kathmandu today is in the form of nominally undercover secret service agencies on the one hand, and, on the other, accelerating activities of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh allies such as the Vishwa Hindu Mahasangh, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh. There are shakhas and sangathans. While the agency operatives work to form a “comfortable” government in Kathmandu and impact political opinion, the saffron adventurists seek to influence the disgruntled classes, hoping to overthrow the Constitution and declare Nepal a Hindu state.
In this the former king, Gyanendra, has become an open ally, hobnobbing with Chief Minister Adityanath of Uttar Pradesh and others like him, nurturing the hope that the “Hindu state” will also usher in the lost “Hindu kingdom”. In the process, the nationalism of “right-wing” parties of Nepal is brought into question by the very fact that they crave support of India’s religious right to achieve Hindu rashtra, willingly disregarding the proviso in the Constitution that refers to the protection of “sanatan dharma”. Nor does there seem to be consideration of how a country with at least 20% non-Hindus may be declared a “Hindu state”, and certainly the brand of Hindutva with its “Ram exclusivity” will deny the vibrant diversity among Hindus in syncretistic Nepal.
The alacrity with which Nepal’s politicos rushed in January-February to be part of the delivery of two so-called devshila rocks from the Kali Gandaki river destined for statue-building at the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya provided a glimpse of the populist undercurrents in Nepal. For the New Delhi regime, pushing forward a Hindu rashtra campaign in Nepal would be a boost to the BJP’s electoral prospects in the Ganga heartland for 2024. It would prove that Modi means what he says, even if he cannot do it immediately within India due to constitutional strictures.
The advantage of a calibrated destabilising of Nepal with the help of the ever-willing Dahal – whose politics has thrived in engineered political chaos – will mean doing away with constitutional secularism and the new republic in one go.
This deconstruction of the 2015 Constitution will be welcome to the newborn political forces of Nepal, propelled to Parliament by a populist surge in November. These forces have yet to generate a political ideology, but they are united against the federalism of seven provinces which they see as profligate. In this sense, the anti-federalists and the Hindutva agenda will both lead towards chaotic change, and there is no saying what kind of new polarisations this will deliver.
The review of the Constitution and its substantive departures is indeed a good idea, to be carried out over the coming years through sober reflection and consultation, especially with marginalised communities whose voice is being swamped by the clamour of the privileged classes.
Instead, what is being proposed is an immediate demarche, taking advantage of the unpopularity of the mainline political parties due to mal-governance and corruption. Dahal, his star on the wane more than the other leaders, will welcome troubled waters to fish in, knowing that a stable polity is the one thing that will accelerate his decline.
An appendage state
It is too much to expect for India to have a moralistic stand on the fact that Dahal was the leader of an insurgency force that has been accused of grave human rights abuse, including atrocities under his command and the recruitment of child soldiers. Or that he is the principal player to have sabotaged “transitional justice”, which is part of the peace process and requires accountability for heinous crimes such as murder, abduction, disappearance, rape and torture.
Dahal’s own proud statements since 2006 till the present indicate that he has not given up his views on violent politics. This was illustrated in March, the moment the Supreme Court decided to hear a case filed against him for conflict-era killing. Immediately, all nine Maoists factions gathered at the prime minister’s drawing room at the Baluwatar residence to give their angry retort to the rest of society – they had not reformed, least of all the man who was prime minister.
For New Delhi, the advantage of Dahal is that he can be expected to toe the line more than any other contemporary Nepali leader. Not Oli, nor even Deuba will go the distance Modi would want. Hence, super-realpolitik demands that the most be made of Dahal’s enthronement, to reach informal understandings on one-to-one meetings even if not outright signatures, to make Nepal more an appendage state than a sovereign neighbour.
Those analysts in India who may not see matters as this dire vis-à-vis Nepal are not studying what is happening within their own polity, a sad and rapid deceleration of an exemplary democracy with so many unexpected departures.
Among the urgent matters on the New Delhi agenda with Dahal will be upturning the Limpiyadhura-Lipulek claims of Kathmandu, a matter on which he has been extraordinarily coy with the Nepali public; ensuring Indian monopoly over hydropower production in Nepal through Indian private companies and parastatals. Others include setting plans in motion for deep reservoir projects to provide India with regulated water, including for its “river linking” project.
Key on the agenda is also keeping Nepal from engaging with China as well as other Southasian neighbours, especially Pakistan, and preventing Kathmandu from doing anything to promote what may be called the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, or Saarc’s “secular” regionalism, as something inimical to the goal of “Akhand Bharat”. And, increasingly, to support Modi’s Hindutva agenda and a win in the general elections of 2024 by providing fertile ground to prove that his virile can-do spirit can reach beyond Indian borders.
India has already got what it wanted from the current dispensation, when President Poudel signed off on a citizenship bill that New Delhi has favoured the day Dahal flew to New Delhi on Wednesday. In the “new way” of doing things defined by Dahal as “krambhangata”, the President signed a bill that had been sent back to the previous Parliament by the previous President.
Dahal is formally the prime minister of Nepal and he should be given all courtesies by the Indian government, but not to take advantage of an incongruous situation New Delhi itself has helped create, to foist its economic, geopolitical, social and cultural agenda on the neighbouring society.
The Nepali prime minister may come visiting, but with Nepal having come out of elections barely half a year ago, for the small party he leads, Pushpa Kamal Dahal does not have the mandate to negotiate on matters of deep import and long-term consequence.
Kanak Mani Dixit is a writer, journalist and publisher, as well as founding editor of Himal Southasian magazine.