By Maila Baje
If India was expecting to reset its relationship with Nepal with the appointment of a new ambassador, then the omens are not good.
The reverberations of protests along the border, a day after Indian security forces fatally shot a Nepali man who was protesting their presence on disputed territory, continue.
Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, teetering from the threat by the United Madhesi Democratic Front to withdraw support over the police action against protesters in Saptari, inducted the RastriyaPrajatantra Party’s Kamal Thapa as deputy prime minister. As if that was not astonishing enough, the appointment of DilNathGiri, perhaps the most vocal pro-monarchist in that party after the late Padma SundarLawoti, can only be emblematic of new options Dahal may be prepared to espouse. (The departure of Prakash Chandra Lohani from the RPP being portentous for Thapa, of course, depending on how developments unfold in the weeks ahead.)
The new tension in western Nepal has given an opening to the entire political spectrum, which has reverted to accusing India of high-handedness. In declaring the deceased, GovindaGautam, a martyr, Nepal has drawn a line in the sand for the near term. Manjeev Singh Puri, India’s ambassador-designate, thus has his work cut out for him.
The scope for broad ruminations has not been exhausted, though. Puri has not been identified with the agglomeration of foreign policy managers who have established and overseen India’s post-April 2006 approach to Nepal. (Unless, of course, you count Puri’s tenure as deputy permanent representative at the United Nations, during when the Security Council established and oversaw the special political mission in Nepal.)
Puri’s UN tenure, and his subsequent term as India’s representative to the European Union, should provide him with a broader global perspective on Nepal and its place in the region and world. For instance, he could take a fresh look at his statement defending New Delhi’s decision to abstain from the March 2011 Security Council vote on the Libya no-fly zone (particularly part pertaining to his government’s “unwilling[ness] to support far-reaching measures” in the absence of credible information on the situation on the ground. This is not to underestimate the uphill task for Puri – even if he wanted to – to break free from the Ministry of External Affairs’ viceregal orientation toward Kathmandu.
Speaking of Puri’s tenure at the EU, how can we forget the brouhaha of almost exactly a year ago? Our government maintained that the March 30, 2016 India-European Union joint statement’s emphasis on the need for “a lasting and inclusive constitutional settlement in Nepal that will address the remaining constitutional issues in a time bound manner, and promote political stability and economic growth” had ‘hurt’ the sentiments of the Nepali people. Another group of Nepalis felt that the government statement had injured their feelings.
We cannot gauge the full implications of Puri’s appointment amid the fact that Nepalis are pretty much discussing that same issue. What can be said, though, is that the generational shift Puri represents may discourage him from punishing Nepal for the foothold the Chinese have made here since the country’s turn to republicanism, federalism and secularism.
New Delhi’s desire to begin confronting Beijing amid the shifting global power equations might make much strategic sense. In specific terms, the collision of competing spheres of influence reinforced by history and geography would require full and unwavering commitment to a credible objective.
Amid the upsurge of anti-Indian sentiment on the foundation of lingering distrust of New Delhi’s motives in Nepal’s prolonged transition, Puri would also have to articulate and inhibit the imponderables stemming from the election results in the two key border states of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
The ambience certainly won’t change for Puri but the undercurrents always open up possibilities – good or bad, depending on your point of view.
The ambassador supreme and mission creep
By Maila Baje