Journalist | Writer | Analyst
7 May 2009
India’s Nepal policy in disarray
By going along with the undemocratic machinations of the Nepal army brass, New Delhi is undermining the peace and stability it helped to bring about in South Asia’s newest republic.
After siding with General Rookmangad Katawal in his brazen defiance of the civilian government in Kathmandu, India has predictably washed its hands of the consequences by claiming “what is happening in Nepal is internal to Nepal.” The reality is that South Block is up to its neck in the crisis that has emerged there and India is likely to suffer the consequences if the imbalance in civil-military relations that has been recklessly introduced in yet another part of South Asia is not corrected quickly and amicably and the peace process unravels.
Indian officials acknowledge interceding on Gen. Katawal’s behalf as the confrontation between the Nepal Army chief and the elected government began escalating last month. Even before the Maoists, who emerged as the single largest party in the Constituent Assembly last April, took charge of the coalition government, the army chief had placed himself on a collision course with the former rebels. However, despite him publicly opposing the integration of Maoist combatants in the NA — a key principle of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement which ended the nine-year civil war between the People’s Liberation Army and the state — the Maoists made it clear they had no objection to Gen. Katawal serving out his tenure so long as he recognised the supremacy of civilian authority. In reality, the army chief never respected this understanding. He remained firmly opposed to the democratisation of the army and did his best to scuttle integration.
Matters came to a head in recent weeks when he disobeyed specific orders from the government on matters central to the implementation of the CPA. For one, he went ahead with a drive to recruit new soldiers, a move calculated to stir trouble within the Maoists, whose combatants have been cooling their heels for more than two years in anticipation of their integration into the national army. He also defied the government by pushing to extend the tenure of eight senior officers.
With Pakistan and Bangladesh still suffering the consequences of khaki over-reach and New Delhi harbouring reservations about the ‘militarist’ mindset in Sri Lanka, one would have thought the last thing India should want for Nepal is an army that refuses to implement the orders of a duly constituted civilian authority. Yet India did little to get the NA to back off and focussed its entire efforts on urging Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda to swallow the rank insubordination of the army brass. When the Maoist leader said he would strive for political consensus before taking the drastic step of dismissing Gen. Katawal, New Delhi queered the pitch by sending clear signals to parties like the Unified Marxists-Leninists and the Nepali Congress that they should oppose the Maoists.
The end result: the Cabinet went ahead and exercised its prerogative to replace the army chief, while the Unified Marxist-Leninists walked out, thereby reducing Prachanda’s government to a minority. At this stage, the President of Nepal, whose role as Commander in Chief is meant to be exercised strictly in accordance with Cabinet instructions, overstepped his constitutional authority and “reinstated” Gen. Katawal. As a result of which Prachanda took the moral high ground and resigned.
The exercise of presidential power in this manner violates what is a settled principle in democratic systems where parliament is sovereign. One only has to think of the consequences of what might have happened if Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, who was unjustly sacked as Navy chief by the Vajpayee government in 1998, had been reinstated by President K.R. Narayanan over the objections of the Union Cabinet. Parliamentary systems often provide for the head of state to be commander in chief of the armed forces. But the head of state is not allowed to use that authority against the advice of a lawfully constituted government.
Even as they deny any involvement in the denouement of the crisis, Indian officials defend the actions of the Nepal President, Ram Baran Yadav, citing the lack of consensus within the governing coalition as reason enough for the dismissal order to be countermanded. South Block also believes that the Maoists were out to gain control of the NA and, thereby, turn Nepal into a “one-party state”, an allegation closely mirroring the arguments the Nepal army brass itself made in a recent presentation to defence attachés stationed in Kathmandu.
If replacing one 60-year-old Army veteran with another is all it takes for the Maoists to establish a monopoly over the instruments of force in Nepal, then the situation there is clearly much more fragile than anyone has ever imagined. The reality is far more prosaic. The Maoists are a divided house. Pragmatists like Prachanda, who led the transformation of the party, are under fire from hardliners who still command the loyalty of the PLA. The only way to resolve this tension is to implement the promise of integration so that the PLA no longer remains a standalone entity. Far from leading to the capture of the Nepal army, integration would essentially help complete the transformation of the Maoists into a purely political force. Which is why a responsible section of the Nepal brass sees some merit in this process; but not so Gen. Katawal or his backers inside and outside the country.
In any democracy governed by a multi-party coalition, the principal check against the biggest coalition member taking unilateral decisions is the assembly of legislators. No doubt the Maoists acted hastily, perhaps even irresponsibly, in allowing the current crisis to come to a head. After all, Gen. Katawal is due to retire three months from now. The Nepali Congress and the UML argue that the hurry was prompted by the fact that Lt General Kul Bahadur Khadka, the army’s second in command who is said to take a more benign view of integrating the PLA than Gen. Katawal, has just four weeks to retire. And once he does, Lt. Gen. Chhatra Man Singh Gurung, an officer in the traditional conservative mould, would become army chief upon the retirement of Gen. Katawal. Though rumours about the individual inclination of these top officers have been swirling around Kathmandu for weeks, the three generals made a joint appearance on television on April 30 to emphasise their unity.
In defence of their action dismissing the army chief, the Maoists say the issue at stake was not the fate of this particular army chief but the principle of civilian control. Allowing Gen. Katawal to get away with his defiance of the government would set a bad precedent for his successors. And in a fragile democracy emerging from a conflict in which the army had been the principal agent of the monarchy, such an unhealthy tendency had to be nipped in the bud.
As a coalition itself, the Manmohan Singh government is not unaware of the checks and balances that Parliament as an institution provides. The Congress went ahead and concluded the nuclear deal despite knowing it had just lost its majority but when opposition leaders met the President to complain, they were politely told it was up to Parliament to reject or accept what the Prime Minister had done. A vote of confidence was convened which Dr. Singh duly won. Similarly, in Nepal, the forum to undo the Maoists’ decision to dismiss the army chief was the CA. The UML could have moved a vote of no-confidence and, if Prachanda was unable to win support from other quarters, his government would have been voted out. A new government would then have been formed which could have immediately reversed the dismissal order. This is the way a democracy would have functioned. There was no need to resort to extra-constitutional manoeuvring, certainly not in order to defend an army chief who clearly has no respect for the boundaries of his authority.
By involving itself in this unseemly process, New Delhi has sacrificed the prospects of long-term democratic stability in Nepal for the short-term satisfaction of undermining the Maoists. That India played a signal role in helping the Maoists make the transition from a guerrilla force to parliamentary party in the first place only shows the extent to which the authorities here seem to lack a consistent or coherent approach towards their northern neighbour. Earlier, in the midst of Jan Andolan II in April 2006, New Delhi sent Karan Singh on an ill-advised mission to see if the monarchy could somehow be saved. And now, again, it has erred in backing the military over the civilian side. For the present, an all-party national government without the Maoists can easily be formed. But the crucial task of integrating the PLA with the Nepal Army will remain unfulfilled and this will slowly eat away at the innards of the peace process.