My consultations with Nepalese political elders – Ganesh Man Singh, Manmohan Adhikari, Girija Prasad Koirala, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai and Surya Bahadur Thapa – yielded new insights into Nepal’s turbulent politics as well as its relations with India. They spoke with a historical perspective stretching back over several decades, and despite their political and individual differences, it was clear that they converged on the importance of strong India-Nepal relations for Nepal’s well-being.

Ganesh Man Singh, possibly Nepal’s tallest political figure, revered for his courageous leadership against the monarchy during the pro-democracy agitation, and his refusal to accept the prime ministership in the first democratic government that came into being in 1990, felt that Nepal’s democracy could be consolidated provided India resisted the temptation to run Nepal’s internal affairs.

This was a fairly explicit reference to the damage done by (in the Nepalese perception) the blatantly intrusive role of some Indian ambassadors since CPN Singh; he also referred to India’s propensity to play favourites with Nepalese political actors (an implicit reference to the perceived partisanship shown to Koirala in recent years). He was by now in very poor health, speaking in barely audible whispers. I could make out that despite his reservations about some aberrations in India’s past policies, he wanted India to be actively engaged in strengthening and protecting Nepal’s fragile democracy.

Manmohan Adhikari, the firebrand CPN (UML) prime minister, was surprisingly relaxed and positive about India even in my first meeting with him. He praised my predecessor as a good man who had been unfairly criticised (by him!) for favouring Koirala, suggested that India should not read too much into his anti-India election rhetoric; and emphasised his party’s commitment to building stronger ties with India even if it would not agree to their being described as “special relations”. He specifically discounted worries about his opposition to the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship: “Excellency, friendship treaties are not to be abrogated.” He wanted the treaty to be “reviewed”, and suggested that in the end, both countries would be happy with a “few full stops and commas being changed”. This, of course, was music to Delhi’s ears.

Contrary to my expectation, Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI[M] or CPM) leaders in India did not seem very sure as to how the rise of the CPN (UML) should be viewed in India. West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, for example, felt that while we could strike a good understanding with a veteran like Adhikari, we should make our own assessments regarding the CPN (UML) as a whole, especially about the extent of influence of “Naxalite-type elements”. When Adhikari visited Kolkata during his first official visit, the media commented on the lukewarm nature of the welcome he was accorded by the state government despite their shared ideological affiliation.

Girija Prasad Koirala, deeply sincere about ties with India, was not a man for details. He was a democrat to the core as far as Nepal was concerned but had his own ideas about running his party. As a supreme tactician, he was dismissive of Nepalese politicians who made anti-India noises because of domestic compulsions.

The anti-Indian rhetoric in Nepal was at that time limited to the Kathmandu Valley urban elite and India did not need to worry about its security implications. He mentioned a sampling of Nepalese attitudes towards India that he had personally conducted when India–Nepal relations were going through a particularly difficult phase in 1989: an absolute majority of opinion found a serious confrontation with India to be ‘unacceptable’; as for the 1,30,000 ex-servicemen who had been in the Indian Army and were now islands of prosperity in rural Nepal, they would be prepared to actively resist any sinister attempt to undermine the relationship at the cost of the interests of the Nepalese people.

He was perhaps the only leader who had the style and stature to scold his peers, chide them in public, bully them, or indeed engage in brinkmanship if his political instinct led him to do so. The day would come when these qualities would enable him to carve out his place in the history books – for ending the Maoist insurgency and bringing them into the mainstream of Nepal’s multiparty democracy.

Nepal’s prime minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai struck me as being a philosopher-politician with a deceptively frivolous attitude to life and a wicked sense of humour. He felt that decades of brainwashing by Rana and royal regimes, with the active guidance of the British, had created an aggressively nationalistic Nepalese mindset vis-à-vis India which would take decades more of patient and transparent diplomacy and people-to-people contact to change. He once narrated a hilarious story of a winter day he had spent on the lawns of India House during the Rana period, when the Indian ambassador and he had an animated discussion on the political situation, while finishing off an entire bottle of brandy.

The ambassador’s spouse, irritated that several messages sent through the support staff had not succeeded in ending their session, finally appeared in person and lambasted His Excellency in Marathi, assuming that Bhattarai would not understand. The ambassador (again in Marathi) pleaded not guilty, blaming Bhattarai for the unending conversation as well as the high beverage consumption. When Bhattarai, after passively witnessing the husband-wife exchanges, innocently inquired of the ambassador as to what had upset Madam so much, the ambassador dismissed it as a problem she was having with the cook. Finally, Bhattarai got up and took leave of his host in impeccable Marathi, before riding off on his bicycle, chuckling at the look of stunned embarrassment on the faces of the ambassadorial couple as they saw him off!

Surya Bahadur Thapa was possibly the most articulate of leaders when it came to discussions on strategic approaches to various issues of concern, domestic or bilateral. One could not but respect his intellect and capacity for lucid analysis. Alas, he belonged to the wrong party, and his excellent administrative skills could not assist the country despite his frequent prime ministerial stints in subsequent years.

Key leaders like Girija Prasad Koirala, Surya Bahadur Thapa and the Madheshi leader of the Nepal Sadbhavana Party, Gajendra Narayan Singh, seemed to feel that the real danger to Nepal came not from the Palace but from the strengthening of radical forces on the Left. Their hope was that India would not take the minority CPN (UML) government too seriously since it was likely to be short-lived, apart from not being either “democratic” or ‘genuinely friendly’ towards India.

On 15 August 1997, I hosted a massive Independence Day anniversary reception at India House. The royal family, the entire cabinet, former prime ministers and Nepal’s civil society elites turned up. The mood was one of genuine celebration of India-Nepal friendship. On the spur of the moment, I thought of requesting all the former and present Nepalese leaders, along with the King and Queen, my wife and myself, to assemble for a photo opportunity which would also be an assertion of bilateral relations built on Indian support for constitutional monarchy and multiparty democracy.

King Birendra readily agreed but whispered that I should sound the Queen out separately since her sari would get wet in the drizzle that had commenced. But the Queen enthusiastically agreed, too, as did all the other leaders. The photograph taken outside the royal tent on India House lawns was front-page stuff in every newspaper and the subject of much positive public comment the following day.

India’s twin-pillar strategy of supporting multiparty democracy and constitutional monarchy was working well – or so it seemed!

Excerpted with permission from Kathmandu Chronicle: Reclaiming India-Nepal Relations, K V Rajan and Atul K Thakur, Penguin India.