August 14, 2001


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Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta

Jaswant's journey may herald new phase in Indo-Nepal ties

Foreign and Defence Minister Jaswant Singh's unscheduled visit to Nepal on Saturday is the first journey to Kathmandu by a high-ranking Indian leader since the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance won power in the October 1999 general election. This visit is all the more significant as it comes at a time when Nepal has undergone its worst-ever socio-politico and security crisis and is still recovering from the horrors of the June 1 royal massacre, political instability and Maoist depredations.

The world's ultimate Shangrila is riven by a people's war that even its worst sceptics had not imagined. Yet, Nepal has moved on.

In a painful, but constitutional and democratic, transition, Kathmandu has both a new monarch and a new prime minister. Singh's long overdue visit will reaffirm India's abiding faith in constitutional monarchy and the multi-party system that had been shaken by internal contradictions and an inadequate rapport between these two pillars of governance.

The weekend visit during a busy Parliamentary session indicates the great importance India attaches to relations with the Himalayan kingdom. Singh is not only leader of the Upper House, but also the foreign and defence minister. The royalty in Nepal reserve the weekend for sport, leisure and family gatherings. King Gyanendra will make an exception in receiving Singh on a holiday.

Singh is not unfamiliar with the fluid political landscape in Nepal. He was the last senior Indian leader to visit Kathmandu in September 1999, soon after his historic visit to Beijing during the Kargil war. He was then only a caretaker foreign minister and went to the eastern town of Dharan to applaud the heroic contribution of Gurkhas on the Kargil heights. He made serious efforts to smoothen the many wrinkles in Indo-Nepal relations that crop up periodically and secured an assurance from then Nepal prime minister K P Bhattarai about bridling Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence agency which is active in the kingdom.

Barely three months later, the downturn in relations sprang unexpectedly from the hijacking to Kandahar of Indian Airlines Flight 814 from Kathmandu. This led to an indefinite suspension of flights from India to Nepal, which wrecked Nepal's tourism industry. Many Nepalese compared the air ban to the economic blockade of the late 1980s and interpreted it rightly or wrongly as punishment for giving the ISI a free run of Nepal. The Pakistan embassy's involvement in Kathmandu in the hijack became pretty clear. President K R Narayanan was constrained to mention it in his address to Parliament.

G P Koirala, who took over as prime minister from Bhattarai, came calling in July 2000 only after the hijack episode had been settled and Nepal had undertaken specific measures for the security of Indian flights from Kathmandu. But relations between the two countries remained less than ideal despite India agreeing to take up de novo, the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship and other smaller but routine irritants in order to rebuild mutual trust and confidence. The ISI, now a standard issue, continued to stick out as a sore thumb.

The military takeover in Pakistan hit Nepal badly: the SAARC summit fixed for Kathmandu later that year had to be postponed indefinitely, stinging Nepal's hotel industry by Rs 20 crore (Rs 200 million), besides depriving it of hosting the first-ever summit in Kathmandu. Foreign Minister Chakra Bastola tried more than once to get the Indian prime minister to reciprocate Koirala's visit, but so preoccupied were Indian leaders with domestic affairs that even Singh could not find the time to travel to Nepal to inaugurate a bridging project across the East West Highway.

Just when the dust from the hijack appeared to have settled, a fresh rumpus was created by the Hrithik Roshan controversy last December. Once again, the Indians in Nepal, some of them Nepalese citizens, became the target of anti-Indian venom. Indian tourists had to flee the country, reviving the bad breath in relations between Delhi and Kathmandu.

If this was not bad enough, Nepal was periodically stricken by internal disorder, political instability and virtual absence of law and order -- collectively acting as a deterrent to trade, tourism and investment, the spine of Nepal's economy. Simultaneously, calls for Koirala's resignation, both from the Opposition as well as sections of his Nepal Congress party, mounted. The Maoist rampage in the western districts decimating the police made the government look sterile. But worse was to follow.

The unthinkable happened. Call it an act of God or karma; the 256-year-old Shah royal dynasty nearly came to an end. The rest is legend. The inveterate Communist hater, Koirala paid the price for failure to govern. Unable to deal with the Maoists, carry his party together and deflect the blame for the royal massacre and corruption charges, he was forced to resign. The rule of the Koirala clan in Nepal is finally over.

Nepal's picture galleries have two new faces, which are responsible for scripting a new chapter in Nepalese history. It has a second generation Nepal Congress leader in Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deupa; his first term five years ago as head of an incestuous coalition he would rather forget. There is King Gyanendra, untested and ungroomed for the job, yet a monarch in his own right. Singh will be the first foreign leader to meet Gyanendra and Deupa. That itself is an index of the close, if not special, relations between the two countries.

King Gyanendra and Prime Minister Deupa have their jobs cut out for them. The two need to work together to restore political stability, law and order and instil confidence and trust among the people in the the country's tottering democratic institutions. The biggest challenge for them in turning Nepal around is the threat from the Maoists. It would be incorrect to read too much into the present truce between the government and the Maoists and the agreement to start a dialogue. The core demands of the Maoists are so unrealistic and impossible to negotiate that the whole exercise of reconciliation smacks of a deal between the new government and the Maoists.

Even if this is true, it is a price worth paying to end violence in a country unfamiliar with internal conflict. Singh's journey comes at a time when Nepal is at a crossroad. He carries no agenda except good wishes for the leaders and people of Nepal who can count on India's co-operation in rooting in democracy and rooting out the Maoist menace.

Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)

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