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Nepal in the Vajpayee vortex

By Maila Baje
With the first waves of tributes to the late Atal Behari Vajpayee now subsiding, it may not be inopportune to reflect on the man through the prism of political developments in Nepal.
A steadfast friend of Nepal, Vajpayee was at ease with Nepal’s royalty and its detractors alike. Having spent much of his early political career building the Hindu nationalists into a viable electoral force, Vajpayee served as foreign minister in the short-lived Janata Party government that ousted the Indian National Congress in 1977.
Ideologically close to King Birendra, Vajpayee was a committed democrat with an affinity for B.P. Koirala and the Nepali Congress. Reconciling those imperatives was a difficult job in the best of times. The post-Sikkim-annexation environment was hardly assuring for Nepal.
As one coalition partner of Prime Minister Morarji Desai, Vajpayee was scarcely in a position to influence policy based on his Jana Sangh’s political ideology. Moreover, while Koirala allies dominated the Janata Party, they were at a loss over how to accommodate Nepal’s most prominent democrat’s quest for a return to the kingdom’s political mainstream. Amid the shakiness of the Desai coalition, the best one could have hoped for was a sort of modus vivendi between the partyless Panchayat system and the Nepali Congress.
Months earlier, Koirala had returned to Nepal from exile in India, ostensibly fed up with the restrictions Indira Gandhi’s Emergency-era government placed on him. Although he alighted the aircraft with a message of national reconciliation, Koirala was a wanted man back home and was treated as such. In the near term, Koirala’s hopes of political reconciliation with the palace were heading nowhere.
With the advent of the Janata government, there were some expectations of progress and, gradually, subtle signs of movement. Vajpayee worked behind the scenes together with ideological adversary George Fernandes and personal rival Subramaniam Swamy.  King Birendra held consultations with Koirala and sanctioned his trip abroad for medical treatment over the objections of key palace advisers, some of whom were still advocating the death penalty for the man. (Asked by a reporter whether he would return to Nepal and almost certain reimprisonment, Koirala responded by propounding the famed Two Necks in a Noose Theory.)
From the break it so energetically sought to make from the overt Nehru-Gandhi overlordship of Nepal, the Janata government might have gone along with any verdict emerging from the national referendum in Nepal in 1980. By then, however, Indira Gandhi had returned as prime minister. How she could have reconciled her personal antipathy toward Koirala with a restored multiparty system that he would have dominated remained an academic question. Koirala himself made things easier for Gandhi by offering a prolix yet principled endorsement of the popular verdict, going against the prevailing mood in the opposition camp.
The next decade and a half were a period of often-convulsive conversion for both Nepal and Vajpayee. His new Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) increased its legislative tally from two seats to head the federal government in New Delhi. Nepalis, emerging from shockwaves sent by the fall of the Berlin Wall, were living under a restored multiparty democracy but were growing disenchanted with the attendant political shenanigans. Maoist rebels were pouncing from the sidelines.
Vajpayee’s fortnight-long first premiership in 1996 was a dry run for the second two years later. How a Hindu nationalist-led government might engage with the world’s only Hindu monarchy was something keenly watched on both sides of the border and beyond. The early signs seemed promising. When the Vajpayee government invited King Birendra as the chief guest at the Republic Day in early 1999, many saw this as a solid affirmation of India’s recognition of Nepal’s sovereign existence.
By the end of the year, bilateral relations took their worst plunge ever. India’s RAW intelligence agents, through carefully calibrated leaks, projected Nepal as a haven for Pakistan’s spy agencies obsessed with anti-Indian subversion. A Christmas Eve hijacking of an Indian aircraft shortly after takeoff from Kathmandu was immediately cited as evidence of Pakistani destabilization. But, then, the flight went on a murky path with intriguing twists to weave a story that couldn’t be kept straight. When the ordeal ended in Afghanistan with Indian External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh escorting the imprisoned militants the hijackers demanded in exchange for the passengers, everyone wanted the story buried.
Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, our prime minister then, isn’t around to recall the pressure he was under to incriminate Pakistan. But his foreign minister, Ram Sharan Mahat, can perhaps still remember how it was US President Bill Clinton who ended up letting him off the hook by rejecting the notion of official Pakistani complicity in the hijacking.
The succeeding year fared little better and ended with protests sparked by an Indian film star’s purported derogatory words for Nepalis. Few, if any, could confess to hearing those words or to knowing where or when they had been uttered. As Kathmandu burned, the usual suspects came up. Only this time, they were now-exiled elements of India’s underworld supported by Pakistan.
Of course, the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan and the Kargil War, among other things, had heightened regional tensions. Yet the Chinese were uncharacteristically subdued in their backing – if you could even call it that – of Pakistan in both instances. The Americans were hardening their stance against China politically and economically. Although officially US-India ties were on the upswing, privately, according to subsequently published memoirs by some key players, the Americans were having a hard time overcoming the BJP-led government’s emulation of Nehru-Gandhi-era sanctimony and moralism in an effort to preserve their strategic autonomy. President Clinton’s brief stopover in Pakistan, recently the venue of a military takeover, was more of a rebuff to India than an embrace of the Pakistani generals.
In Nepal, there was a flurry of high-level visitors from China, including Premier Zhu Rongji. That burst of diplomacy culminated in the Chinese government’s invitation to King Birendra to the inaugural Boao Forum as a special guest, followed by a state visit to the country.
Of course, sections of Indian academia and media voiced concern over this sudden surge in activity on the Nepal-China front. Representatives of some leading Western governments were said to be advising King Birendra to take a more assertive political role in view of the political parties’ ‘mismanagement’. One outgoing ambassador’s audience with the monarch was said to have turned testy on both sides when the king reminded him that his government’s undue pressure in 1990 was partly responsible for Nepal’s tumultuous politics.
Although buried in the post-9/11 narrative, American relations with China under the new George W. Bush administration were so fraught that in early April 2001 Beijing forced a US military spy aircraft to land in China and held it for three months before allowing its dismantled pieces to fly out three months later.
What was noteworthy was that, in the midst of this mayhem, the Vajpayee government was in the initial phases of striking a grand bargain with the Chinese on Tibet. Was the trilateralism we are talking about today making its first stirrings then? (Last week, the Chinese were fulsome in their praise of Vajpayee for having made “path-breaking contributions to the development of Sino-Indian relations”.) We were never to find out, the Narayanhity Carnage having intervened on the night of June 1, 2001.
Even those most convinced of India’s hand (or a couple of fingers at least!) in the palace massacre were at a loss to explain how it could have happened under Vajpayee. Reports emerging years later that the BJP-led government had opened contacts with Nepali Maoists served to underscore the cold unsentimentality underpinning our bilateral relations.
Vajpayee’s personal reaction to the massacre was no different from the official messages pouring in from world capitals. At a private gathering of party workers in Nagpur weeks later, Vajpayee was said to speak of having been presented with a fait accompli in Nepal. That cryptic clarification was extended to imply that Indian intelligence agencies, long-time foes of Nepal’s monarchy, were working on their own plans as part of competing Nepal policies being forged by Indian institutions. (Years later, after the BJP lost to the Congress, Rabindra Singh, a senior RAW agent defected to the United States via Nepal purportedly with a cache of classified files on Nepal.)
If accurate, this reasoning would not only explain the BJP’s opening to Nepali Maoists but the entire subsequent script unfolding from India.  Amid the studiousness of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government’s effort to shield its Nepal policy from any overt ideological tilt, we have come to accept it as axiomatic that India, like any other country, makes cold foreign-policy calculations in the pursuit of its national interests.
Yet during the Vajpayee years, either out of sheer Nepali naivete or belief in the genuineness of personal relationships among leaders of two countries, it was hard to grasp the tragic confluence of events of the times. It is still so.

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