India isn’t constantly trying to subvert Nepali politics

JAN 14 -

Shyam Saran, a former Indian Foreign Secretary, served as the Indian Ambassador to Kathmandu from 2002-2004. Subsequently as Indian Foreign Secretary (2004-06), he played a crucial role in facilitating the 12-point understanding between the erstwhile Seven Party Alliance and the rebel Maoists in 2005. The understanding is credited launching the Jana Andolan 2 and the peace process. Today, as the political course started by the understanding remains stuck over the contending demands from the ruling coalition and the opposition, our New Delhi Bureau Chief Mahesh Acharya spoke with Saran about India's role in Nepali politics and its views on China, among others topics. Excerpts:


Let’s begin with your observation on the current political situation in Nepal.

The problem is that the political parties have not yet been able to reach consensus on how to take the peace and constitutional processes forward, even though considerable progress has been made in the integration of Maoist cadres into the Nepal Army. While there have been discussions on the nature of the Nepali state in the new Constitution to be adopted, there are significant differences among the parties on the kind of federal polity Nepal should have. I am not really surprised that it is taking more time than envisaged to formulate a constitution that responds to the aspirations of all sections of Nepal’s population.

You on behalf of government of India, played a very significant role in forging 12-point understanding which is the foundation for the current political course. When this course is going nowhere, do you at some point come through the feeling that 12-point was a mistake ?

First of all, there is a misunderstanding that I or any part of the Government of India played a major role in forging the 12-point understanding. We played a role in facilitating it, but the agreement was very much arrived at through the efforts of the political parties and the CPN (Maoist). So it should not be seen as something foisted on the political parties by India. Having said that, in the political situation prevailing at that time the 12-point understanding played a very important role in the political evolution of Nepal, clearing the way for the Maoists to join the political mainstream.

That time other international forces especially the US, was totally against bringing the Maoists to political mainstream. What made India think differently?

Because it was becoming quite clear to us and to other political forces in Nepal that there was no military solution to the political and security crisis confronting Nepal. There was no way one side could defeat the other side militarily, so a political solution had to be found. The 12-point understanding was a response to that assessment.

Many facts could corroborate that India was initially opposed to the involvement of UN in Nepal's peace process. But later, what made India review its position?

There seems to be misunderstanding about our view on the role of United Nations. We welcomed the role of the UN in terms of monitoring the process of disarmament and the storage of weapons in different encampments. If the parties concerned were not themselves able to agree upon a local monitoring mechanism then the UN could perform that role. On that particular UN role we had no difficulty. The issue was whether the UN mandate went much beyond that and that it should include a  role in the peace process itself.  In our view it was best to leave it to the political parties to decide how to take the peace process forward.

Reports of uneasy relationship between UNMIN and India quite often emerged. Why was not India happy with UNMIN's role in Nepal ?

There was no problem as far as the UN’s role in monitoring the ceasefire and disarmament of Maoist cadres was concerned.  But, for example, on the issue of the integration of Maoist cadres into the Nepal army, the UN team in Nepal seemed to want to have a role in trying to promote that.  We were of the view that it was best to leave it to the political parties themselves to evolve a consensus on this issue.  This would be better for the peace process than any externally inspired measure.

In a recent report Non Aligned Movement 2.0 prepared by you along with other Indian experts, it is mentioned that small neighbors like Nepal fear India or chafe at its perceived condescension? Why do you think such fear exists?

It is quite inevitable that when you are a large country with smaller neighbours, there will be apprehension and fear of domination among neighbours. India should not react negatively to the expression of such fears. This is quite in the nature of things because we are very large. We should try and put ourselves in the shoes of our smaller neighbours and see how we are looked upon by them.

So, you think enough has not been done from Indian side to allay these fears?

From India's point of view, we have done a great deal. Perhaps we should do more. It is not an either/or situation. It is important for India to convey a sense of reassurance to its neighbors. I have argued again and again that we should give our neighbors a stake in our prosperity. This is what I used to say when I was in Nepal. Look at India as an opportunity not as a threat because if you are able to establish  close economic ties with India and have access to its huge market of 1.2 billion people, to what India has to offer in terms of capacity building and education, this will assist Nepal in bringing about the economic development to its own people.

But notwithstanding these facts, there are lot of suspicions regarding India's intentions in Nepal. It is thought to be the reason behind every political ups and downs. Why do you think such kind of feelings prevail?

I have pointed out in the past that contrary to the belief some Nepali people have that South Block is always engaged in trying to subvert Nepal, the biggest problem I faced as Ambassador to Nepal was to get enough attention for Nepal within the Indian government.  There is complete misunderstanding about the situation.  Nepal needs more attention from India not less.

But on the contrary New Delhi mandarins frequently say that the primary focus of the Indian foreign policy is the neighborhood?

It should be, but it is not. That is the weakness of Indian foreign policy that we don't attach the priority to our neighbors as we should. Look in terms of capacity which is there in the foreign ministry to handle the neighborhood. If you have one Joint Secretary to handle two or three neighbors together , how can you give the attention that is required ?

India is often perceived to be intervening in Nepal's domestic affairs. For example, a few months ago, you yourself was on record saying that India intervened during the army chief dismissal saga in 2009. Your response?

Again there is a misunderstanding on what I wanted to convey.  It was conveyed to us and to other political parties that any significant changes in the Nepal Army would only be made after first bringing about political consensus.  This was a sensitive issue and included the question of the integration of Maoist cadres into the Army.  When Mr Prachanda was Prime Minister, he had conveyed the assurance that this was a sensitive issue and nothing would be done without first forging a consensus among the parties.  It was an assurance conveyed to other political parties and to us as well.  What I wanted to convey was that this assurance was not upheld.  This must be seen against the backdrop of the imbalance there was until recently.  The Maoists had an armed cadre, but the other political parties did not.  The Maoists had to decide whether they wanted to remain an insurgency or become a civilian party like any other party.  The discipline of multiparty democracy requires that you must be a civilian party like others.

So, you mean New Delhi intervened to avert the possible political problem ?

Intervene is not really the right word. We supported the view of the political parties who said this was violation of assurance given not only to them but also conveyed to India by Maoists.

That means you are backtracking from your earlier statement that India intervened in Katwal case ?

I am not backtracking. But India did support position taken by the President that this dismissal of the army general was not correct in terms of the understanding reached with political parties and that this could have adverse consequences.

How do you assess India's current Nepal policy?

As far as India is concerned , the best role India could play is try and see that whenever our advice or support is required, we are there to extend that support, assistance or advice. India interjecting itself into the political dynamics of Nepal is neither good for Nepal nor India. As we are very close neighbors and have an open border, naturally, what happens in Nepal , has impact on India and vice versa. So one should not be surprised that India is concerned with what is happening in Nepal. What would we like to see happen in Nepal ? We would like to see that the process of establishing peace is finally concluded, that the constitution is finalized at any early date rather than delayed further and there is consolidation of democracy in Nepal particularly democracy which is inclusive in character. The changes that took place in 1990 and 2005, brought about a much higher degree of political awareness among those sections of Nepali population who were marginalized earlier. For long term political stability and economic development you need to have an inclusive democracy

India is perceived to be rallying behind a particular party, person or group in Nepal. Your thoughts.

What I believe in, and what I think is also the Government’s position, is that India should not play favourites.  It is in India’s interest that sooner rather than later there should be political stability and economic prosperity in Nepal.  I have always believed that Nepal has the assets and the potential to become one of the richest countries in South Asia.

But for instances, in 2010, you came in news in Nepal for allegedly lobbying with Madhes-based parties not to support UCPN Maoist Chairman in the prime-ministerial race.

The reason why I was sent to Nepal by the Government was to convey the view from the Indian side that it was not important who became the Prime Minister of Nepal, but that all political parties should sit down together to bring about a consensus on how to take the peace process and the drafting of the constitution forward.  There were also issues relating to, for example, the restitution of properties which were taken over during the insurgency and the integration of Maoist cadres into the Army.  The limited role that I was asked to play was to urge all the parties concerned, including the Maoists, to forge a consensus on the substantive issues rather than focus on who was to become the Prime Minister.

You referred to the assurances. What kind of assurances did Maoists give to India ?

Maoists did convey to Indian side that concerning the very sensitive nature of the role of the Nepal Army, they would not do anything without forging a political consensus. It is not that we said that you must give us this assurance or that guarantee. What they were conveying was, as a ruling party, they recognized their responsibility and on different sensitive issues, they would do everything possible to forge a consensus.

India's Nepal policy is now said to be reduced to the level of bureaucrats and intelligence agencies. What's your observation?

You should ask this question to  people in government. But I certainly believe that on policy regarding to Nepal, our political leadership is always concerned. So I do not believe that our political leadership has outsourced India’s Nepal policy to the bureaucracy or intelligence agencies.  Once again, I reiterate that there is a wrong perception in Nepal that the Indian side is constantly trying to subvert Nepal or supporting this or opposing that political faction.  Nepal is extremely important to India for the reasons mentioned earlier but that is no reason to believe that India constantly interferes in Nepal.  The fact is that we have very close relations, both in terms of cultural affinity and economic links.  Millions of Nepali people  work in India.  There is every reason for us to promote mutual understanding and work together for our mutual benefit.

On a different note, what's your view on President Rambaran Yadav's current role in Nepal ?

We will support any effort to forge political consensus, because that is the way forward. There are important substantive issues, for example the nature of federalism that needs to be established in Nepal, the issue of how different states must  be carved out, the nature of power sharing between centre and states, the extent of regional autonomy, how to balance the issue of Nepali identity. To me, it is not a surprise that Nepal is taking time to settle these issues as they are not easy. But we should keep in mind that since 2005, we have seen lot of progress in Nepal. Now, the endemic violence is a thing of the past. That is a big step forward and people should not overlook the progress the country has made. It is also a fact that the political parties, despite their differences, agreed to an interim constitution. Even when there has been an impasse, political parties have come together and avoided a break. While we should be concerned about the lack of progress on some issues, we should not overlook the achievements Nepal has made. We should celebrate that.

You mentioned the issue of federalism. Will it be a matter of concern for India if many states are carved in the Terai area of Nepal bordering India ?

It is not for India to decide whether there should be more or less states. It is a matter for the people of Nepal to decide. We cannot go around prescribing  the nature of  federalism and the number of states .  But if there is a desire in Nepal to learn from the Indian experience, we are ready to share that experience but at the end of the day India cannot be a substitute for what Nepali political parties themselves have to do, That's their call, not India's.

What's your observation on China's role in Nepal ?

The concept that India regards Nepal as its backyard and it doesn't want any major country or other neighbors to have any kind of presence in Nepal, is completely outdated. To the extent that China's role in Nepal is positive and constructive like ours and if it is directed towards promoting political stability and economic prosperity in Nepal, then why should India have a problem with that ? So much depends on the nature of the role China wishes to play  in Nepal. Nepal itself and other countries are also clear that there are some sensitivities as India shares an open border with Nepal. If there are forces that use Nepal's soil for hostile activities in India, then this will naturally be a matter of concern to us.

However, there are reports of India worrying about alleged Chinese activism in Nepal. Even statements from responsible Indian ministers have come forward regarding this issue.

As long as we have no evidence of any hostile activities by China against India, there is no reason for us to be concerned. If that position changes, what assessment will the Government of India make, we shall have to wait and see. But the presence of China or Chinese relationship with Nepal by itself should not be a matter of concern for India.

Is there any possibility of collaboration between India and China in Nepal, particularly in the areas of economy, hydropower or even the political stance ?

Of course. Certainly there are possibilities. India and China are rapidly growing economies. Nepal can be a very important transit country between India and China. If I am not mistaken, our trade treaty talks about the possibility of using Nepal as a transit country between India and China. We should look at how this can be beneficial for all the three countries. As far as hydropower is concerned, India's basic interest is in getting power at economical rates from Nepal. Even if China does a power project, but we are able to get power at rates which are economical and viable for us, that would be fine. This is what we did when we signed a PPA on the proposed West Seti Project. If that project doesn't come through, it's not due to any problem from the Indian side. If Nepal wishes to go other contractors or countries to develop its hydropower resources because it has reservations on India doing that role, its fine. But India will buy the power only if it is economical, so that is the key issue, not so much who is doing the project.

What about the collaboration in geo-strategic issues ?

If China is interested in Nepali political stability and its economic prosperity, then that completely accords with objectives that India has. And as long as this remains true, neither China has to worry about India nor India has to worry about China.


Posted on: 2013-01-14 08:54