India Needs to Shake Hands with Maoists in Nepal

India's inability to correctly predict the outcome of the Nepal elections indicates its mindset as well as its failure to keep pace with the changing ground reality in the neighboring country. It is hardly a consolation that like New Delhi, many key international players were also wrong in their assessment of identifying the Maoists as the winner of the Nepalese polls.

India's stakes in Nepal are much higher than those of Western countries like the US or those from the European Union. It not only shares a long and porous border with Nepal but its economy and security are also closely linked with the neighbors. In addition, many major rivers flowing into India originate in Nepal. A sizeable section of the Nepalese population is made up of ethnic Indians.

The Maoists entered the Nepalese political scene nearly 13 years ago. But successive Indian governments continued to ignore their growing clout even as the Maoists were in control of over 75 percent of the country.

India's Nepal policy had been based on the "twin pillars" of a constitutional monarchy and multi-party democracy. Striking a balance between the palace and the democratic parties in Nepal served New Delhi well for years.

A significant shift in the mood of the people away from the monarch became discernible from the time Gyanendra succeeded his slain brother, Birendra, as the king of Nepal. Backed by the Royal Nepal Army, whose links with the Indian armed forces run deep, the leadership in New Delhi went on supporting Gyaendra, though the monarch's style of functioning had irked many Indian and Nepalese political leaders.

India's misreading of the situation in Nepal perhaps came to the fore two years ago when Gyanendra faced one of his worst crises in the wake of growing demands for his ouster. By sending Karan Singh, the son of the former maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir to talk to Gyanendra, New Delhi gave out a signal that it was not in sync with the ground reality in Nepal. The mood in Nepal then was not for a compromise; it was for an early exit of the king.

The Indian Left salvaged the situation for the government to some extent when it took the initiative of working out a ceasefire agreement and a peace plan between the Maoists and the other major political parties in Nepal. The fact that turning Nepal into a republic formed the basis of the peace plans was not lost on India.

But for a long time sections in the Indian establishment continued to hope that even in the changed scenario the king would play a role.

It is now certain that the Maoists would dominate the future government in Nepal. It is also a foregone conclusion that the king would now have to go and Nepal would now become a republic. The Nepali Congress, a party which key officials in the Indian government were comfortable with, would end up playing second fiddle to the Maoists. So would the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist and many others.

India would have to re-work its equation with the Maoists. The Left parties in India could yet again play a role to bridge the gap between the Maoists and New Delhi. Both the Indian government and Maoist leader Prachanda have expressed hope they would be able to work together in future. But it would have to go much beyond words and sound bytes for TV journalists.

The Maoists would have to feel comfortable with the Indian government. They would have to sift through the rhetoric and identify issues that are crucial for Nepal's independence, stability and progress.

On its part, India would have to realize that the wrong assessment it made could only get worse if it continues to treat the Maoists in Nepal with suspicion. A friendly government in Kathmandu is essential for New Delhi. And so is India's support for any government in Nepal. The sooner these facts get recognized in the two capitals, the better would it be for the people of India and Nepal.

(Pranay Sharma writes on strategic and foreign policy affairs. He can be contacted at pranay.s@ians.in)


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