By MR Josse
KATHMANDU: A ‘Game of Thrones’ of sorts has been inaugurated with the installation of the Prachanda-led coalition, born amidst the debris of the K.P. Sharma Oli-headed administration – indelibly associated in the public mind with a robust defence of the national interest and far-reaching strategic innovations vis-à-vis Nepal-China relations.
Prachanda’s induction as Oli’s successor – hailed by the Indian media in one voice – was conjoined with the perception that the new government would reflexively tilt towards New Delhi, which had made its displeasure over Oli’s ‘nationalist’ stance amply clear.
BALANCE: AN ILLUSION
I shall now focus on the broad geopolitical aspects of the India-China ‘Game of Thrones’, as reflected in recent developments, including Prachanda’s gimmicky idea of dispatching his two senior DPMs to India and China, as special envoys, to ‘prove’ he believes Nepal must follow a balanced foreign policy vis-a-vis India and China – a rejection of South Block’s theology that Nepal-India relations are ‘special’.
How far Prachanda succeeds in hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping this year remains to be seen, although from his speedy dispatch of Finance Minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara to Beijing it might appear to expedite it. After all, did not the president of a prestigious Beijing-based think tank publicly state in Kathmandu the other day that a visit by Xi “depends on Nepal’s readiness”? (vide, Kathmandu Post, 11 August)
All is not as lucid as appears in Singha Durbar’s hall of mirrors. Thus, while Home Minister Bimalendra Nidhi’s ‘yatra’ to Delhi ostensibly seems to balance Mahara’s sortie to Beijing, in fact the ‘game’ is loaded in India’s favour.
Going by a Kathmandu Post front-page story on 12 August, one of Nidhi’s ‘tasks’ would be to secure the visit of Indian President Pranab Mukherjee not only much before the anticipated visit to Xi (in October?) but timing Mukherjee’s call with the first anniversary of Constitution Day on 25 September.
A Himalayan Times news item adds another revealing dimension: “Nepal wants to host Mukherjee as chief guest on the first anniversary of the promulgation of the constitution” – as if to acknowledge India’s special ‘role’ in shaping a document that she has, however, roundly traduced for its purportedly anti-Madeshi bias!
Be that as it may, that Nidhi has been awarded the added responsibility of ensuring an official visit to India by Prime Minister Prachanda in September – and rescheduling the earlier-cancelled visit to India by President Vidya Bhandari – exposes the sleigh of hand in Prachanda’s ostensibly balanced foreign policy gambits. The Himalayan Times’ headline – “Efforts on to ensure Indian president’s visit before China’s” – effectively, if perhaps inadvertently, lets the cat out of the bag.
There is one angularity that hasn’t apparently been considered by Prachanda and his spin meisters: the differential in the political clout of Presidents Xi and Mukherjee. Thus, while Mukherjee is only a ceremonial head of state, Xi holds the reigns of state, party and military power in China. The significance of their visits cannot be equated.
Deb Mukherjee, a former Indian ambassador, in an article in the Indian Express, suggests Prachanda “would need to capitalise and build on Oli’s openings to China for the benefit of Nepal, without needlessly aggravating India. Xi Jinping’s visit to Nepal in October should be indicative of how seriously the Chinese wish to pursue proposals mooted during Oli’s visit, which appeared at the time to reflect Nepal’s wish list.”
Translating Mukherjee’s diplomatese into work-a-day English, Mukherjee warns that Prachanda should not “needlessly aggravate India” – leaving it to the Maoist boss to unravel its true ramifications, if Nepal “were to capitalise and build on Oli’s openings to China.” On the other hand, it hints – oh, so delicately – that Xi, for his part, should not pursue too vigorously “proposals made during the Oli visit.”
INDIA, CHINA: UNEQUAL
I wish to draw attention to Indian strategic thinker C. Raja Mohan’s write-up in the Indian Express where he states: “India might think of itself equal to China, but the realists point to the power shift that has begun to express itself in Beijing’s ties with Delhi” – while reminding that China’s GDP is “nearly five times bigger than India’s”; that its defence expenditure is “four times larger.”
Though he informs that some argue that India should “get used to it”, he goes on to argue that historically weaker states “look for alliances against the strong…If Delhi convinces itself that Beijing is unlikely to accommodate India’s core concerns it will have no option but to find ways to balance Chinese power.”
If that were to happen, it would represent a major departure in India’s approach to China, he avers. Writing days before the visit to Delhi of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Mohan more than makes plain that India could, in such an eventuality, seek alliances with other powers.
It does not require the brains of a Einstein to figure that the prime candidate would be the United States with whom India is already locked in an incipient alliance. One does not have to delve very much into the past to ‘prove’ that such a move against China would not represent a departure from past pattern; it would rather conform to a familiar prototype.
Allow me to transport you to October 1962, in the immediate aftermath of the Sino-Indian border conflict. Then, as Neville Maxwell in his densely documented, ‘India’s China War’, reminds: “The United States, Britain, and other Western powers…had been seen to step forward staunchly in the hour of India’s need, denouncing China, offering India weapons and other assistance…
“On receipt of Nehru’s call for help President Kennedy had dispatched Averell Harriman to India with a team of high-level State Department and Pentagon advisers and General Paul Adams, commander of the mobile strike force which the United States kept for emergency ground action.” And so on.
To return to where we begun, a fierce ‘Game of Thrones’ competition over Nepal has thus begun. Let’s await its results.