Thursday, November 3, 2011

Towards a finale

Parties took a critical leap forward on Tuesday, but they will have to be realistic about anticipating the problems in its implementation.

After dithering for over three years, the major parties finally gave what they had promised—a breakthrough in the peace process and a genuine effort to restore the consensus mechanism on statute drafting and power-sharing. This is a landmark agreement and second only to 2005-06 peace framework.

Statistically, it is rare that civil wars result into permanent peace. Out of 140 civil wars around the world since 1945, just over 18 percent have ended in a peaceful settlement. The risk of backsliding into conflict even after initial settlement is high. But Tuesday’s agreement is another assurance that Nepal’s peace process is in different league altogether and has developed a level of resilience that is difficult to undo.

It has also shown that Nepali political actors understand risk of another conflict and are capable acting rationally when it matters.

Integrating and rehabilitating Maoist combatants is a critical component of Nepal’s negotiated settlement, but examples from elsewhere shows that implementing a Military Integration (MI) agreement isn’t always easy. According to dataset put together by Doyle and Sambanis between 1945 and 1999, 27 wars ended in negotiated settlement and MI took place in 34 cases. Out of 34, only 23 were actually implemented.

Many integration agreements fail to take off or fail midway because of irreconcilable differences aided by calculations among warring sides that returning to conflict is less costly than permanent peace. But in Nepal, thankfully, the settlement process has come to a point where the cost of returning to conflict far outweighs the cost of peace.

The deal has now opened doors for tangible progress on peace, statute-writing and power-sharing, and its implementation will complete the Nepal’s five-years-old arduous peace journey.

The deal appears to be win-win situation for both the Maoists and non-Maoist parties. On ranks and modality, Nepali Congress and CPN-UML managed to get what they wanted. On numbers and rehabilitation package, the Maoists managed to strike a rather sweet deal. The agreement is bit ambiguous on rank and leadership issue of the new directorate but it is possible that the parties have a gentlemen’s agreement behind the actual agreement, and that the ambiguity on ranks and leadership were deliberate.

Both sides in the negotiation pro-cess have constituency to keep, and the deal has enough to keep even the extr-eme elements on both sides engaged.

Maoists hardliners have been insisting all along that the leadership of the directorate be given to PLA combatants. On number and financial package, the hardliners do not have much to complain about. Although Mohan Baidya and company were publicly calling for 8,000 combatants to be integrated, they had more or less accepted that it won’t exceed 7,000 — the number proposed officially by the party establishment. By agreeing on a generous rehabilitation package, NC and UML have deliberately given Dahal room for some face-saving with the hardliners. In return the Maoists have agreed to return seized properties and provide compensation to the owners. Though the tab will be picked by the taxpayers, the price for peace is far less than the cost of continued stalemate.

The give-and-take also indicates the growing rapport between parties and how far both sides have gone to accommodate each other’s concern. This should all work out well for Dahal

in undermining the hardliners’ case. Reports from Maoists cantonments

suggest that Dahal may have pulled

this one off very well .

Integration is a big issue for rebels anywhere after a negotiated settlement for two primary reasons: security guarantee by being part of state’s coercive apparatus and financial incentives. In Nepal the political landscape is such that the former rebels have no need for the security guarantees that comes with integration. The Maoists are part

of the state establishment as an unintended consequence of the political expediency at the time. Nepali actors didn’t follow the typical sequencing of a peaceful settlement: demobilisation, disarmament and elections. Election before the management of arms catapulted the rebels as the largest political party in the CA—dramatically altering the political equations. This has also eliminated the possibility of state reneging on its integration promise or giving a raw deal to the rebels, although the thought must have crossed minds of non-Maoists politicians.

The morphing of former rebels into state actors before the integration started leaves little need for security guarantees. Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise people if generous financial package end up attracting more ex-PLA men than the Maoists had intended.

Overall, Nepal Army deserves credit for thinking outside the box and floating the original proposal that became the basis for Tuesday’s agreement. But there are still many unanswered questions. The deal only provides a broad outline of an integration process and seems to make false assumption that process will be smooth. For it to work the agreement will have to be properly structured. The fixing of the top ceiling for integration, though a political necessity, contradicts the principle of voluntary integration and retirement. What if, hypothetically, more people than expected express wish for integration and also pass the norms of the NA? The current deal assumes that the Maoists will be able to persuade them to change their minds. The Maoists have already finished their version of ‘expression of interest’ survey and the number on the deal is comfortably within the rang. Experiences from sub-Saharan Africa, however, suggests otherwise. Too many simplistic assumptions about a process as complex as integration leads to a poorly worked out integration process that risks failure. Although in Nepal, the transformation of Maoists into a mainstream political force is a guarantor against that risk.

Integration can be a messy process, and working out tight time-bound calendar, though a political necessity, appears unrealistic.

Another significant issue which the parties need to pay attention to is the dispute resolution mechanism. At some point there is bound to be grievances, especially from the former rebels, about real or imagined discrimination. The ex-PLA could find the disciplinary regime of a national army unfair and may feel that they are being discriminated against. Parties and the Special Committee, therefore, should look into forming a separate tribunal to address these issues. Absence of such a tribunal could tempt the Maoists to meddle in favour of their comrades, especially if they are in a position of power.

Monday, October 31, 2011

NC shifts strategy to counter ‘misperception’

KATHMANDU, NOV 01 - A series of positive statements on the peace process in the past one month reflects a tactical shift in negotiation and public relations (PR) strategy adopted by the Nepali Congress, which, the party leaders hope will counter the party's 'obstructionist image.'

The new approach stems largely from conviction among the NC leaders that a generally positive approach in public presentation on matters related to the peace and statute drafting processes will help claw back the party's 'unfavourable' image.

NC leaders say they have now realised that the Maoists have all along handled themselves extremely well before the media, when in fact they were pushing for tough bargain in the actual negotiations. This has led to the grand old party, which prides itself in leading the charge in 'numerous democratic struggle', being presented in negative light.

"We will be extremely amenable to fulfil the public aspirations for peace and constitution," said NC President Sushil Koirala, speaking briefly at the Maoist tea reception in Kathmandu on Monday--hours after attending negotiations among the three major parties.

The remarks are part of NC's careful strategy to get the public messaging right in a bid to avoid being seen as a 'status-quoist,' according to NC leaders.

"We are very serious about completing the peace process," said NC leader and a member of the Special Committee, Minendra Rijal. "But we haven't done enough to present ourselves favourably in the press. So we thought this is the right time to be proactive."

The new efforts come amid a growing perception that the Maoists were doing more to complete the peace process despite strong opposition from hardliners among them. This has earned the former rebels some accolades among the international community--especially after the Maoists handed over the keys to arms containers on September 1.

"In our meetings we have been telling NC leaders to be more amenable," said a Western diplomat last month.

A February 2009 US embassy cable dispatched from Kathmandu on the eve of US Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher's visit to Kathmandu also sheds some light on how the NC was perceived even among countries that had been critical of the Maoists in the past.

"The GON (Government of Nepal) has made little progress on the wider peace process, and bickering within and among the political parties has not helped matters. The opposition NC party complains about the Maoists' lack of implementation of previous agreements, especially returning seized land and reigning in the YCL, and other parties even within the ruling coalition share the complaints. Nevertheless, the NC tends to appear as obstructionist more often than not."

NC leaders say that they are aware of these perceptions and that they are now doing more to counter it.

"Our public presentation of the peace process has been flawed for quite sometime," admitted NC leader Gagan Thapa, who along with others, has advised the party leadership to do away with "too much negativity" in public remarks. "It has done quite a lot of damage to our public standing."

NC President Sushil Koirala is said to be convinced that adopting a 'non-obstructionist' approach on the peace process coupled with an increase in engagement with the Maoists will ultimately help the NC's image. A semblance of progress in the peace process also provides a useful diversion from NC's internal problem for Koirala who is under strong pressure from the Deuba camp for unilaterally dissolving the party's sister wings.

However, NC leaders make clear that the positive vibes in the media, in part, come as a reciprocation of the Maoist gesture rather than a 'unilateral action.'

The party president's point-man on the peace process, Krishna Sitaula, argues that it is the 'change of heart,' among the Maoists, particularly Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai that drives his party's response.

Even party President Sushil Koirala feels that Dahal and Bhattarai will have to be encouraged to take the peace process forward. Koirala has publicly prodded Dahal to act as a statesman and take risks to take the peace process forward. If the peace process is concluded, NC, too, gets the credit, and if polarisation within the Maoists leads to a split within them, the party benefits equally, goes the thinking, according to some NC leaders.

"If you look at the negotiations, there hasn't been any substantive change in our positions," said NC leader Rijal. "Maoists say they are serious about completing the peace process. Even if it's their bluff, it is high time we call their bluff."

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The last leg

In a nutshell, there is one fundamental disagreement on integration: whether or not the combatants should be allowed to retain a distinct identity. Nepali Congress fears that doing so, even after integration, will continue to ‘fan fire to smoulders’ of the conflict. The NC argument is that the Maoists could use their former fighters for ulterior motives if they are somehow allowed to cling on to old loyalties. NC leaders have recently cited examples of mutiny from Bangladesh in support of their argument. It is not yet clear if the Maoists leadership have given up their demand of retaining a separate identity for the combatants, but for sure, the hardliners want it more than anything. Some NC leaders however seem to think that the Maoist establishment is willing to let go of the demand.

Nepal’s peace process has shown surprising resilience over the years. It has survived the breakdown of the consensus prevalent after the Constituent Assembly election of 2008; it survived the sharp polarisation between parties from May 2009 to early 2011 that threatened to derail the peace framework; and it also survived the abrupt departure of UNMIN. Over the course of the peace process, both sides have reneged on their word, partly due to intra-party complications and partly for political expediency. But as the stalemate protracted, both sides have made a surprising turnaround to find common ground by starting where they left off in 2008. In many ways, smooth progress until the CA election and turbulence thereafter was natural. In the initial days of the peace process, the parties had to deal with the broader contours of the process and had a common enemy in the form of the monarchy. But as the enemy was eliminated and time progressed, agreement on specificities could no longer be deferred. Both

sides then took to differing interpretations of what those contours meant to appease their own constituencies.

Once again, parties have reached a broad understanding to expedite the integration process and neither side is deliberately using contentious issues to defer an agreement. The Maoists have shown greater flexibility on some of their demands. Equally, the Nepali Congress and CPN-UML are determined to see this through and have hence have shown flexibility of their own. The biggest catalyst has been the clarity shown by the Maoists on how far they are willing to go to resolve the issues, despite opposition from hardliners within them. In turn, NC leaders have increasingly begun to articulate, in clearer and amenable terms, where their core objections lie and where they are willing to cede ground. This has reduced the trust deficit among both sides. But a more instrumental role in nudging all parties has been played quietly by India. There is a growing sense that India, once again, is taking some ownership of the peace process that it originally facilitated.

India will have to be given a formal public role and Prime Minister Bhattarai rightly reiterated his official request in New Delhi, as he did in New York. So many other international actors with little contributions in facilitating the initial peace framework are actively contributing in various aspects of the process. It is only appropriate that New Delhi, whose behind the scene role has been instrumental from the get-go, be given a public role. But spreading the ownership of the peace process among other domestic constituents is equally critical in guaranteeing success as Nepal’s key actors embark on the last leg of this long and arduous peace journey.

Potential spoilers

There is a constituency in all three major parties that opposes further compromises. In the Maoists, it is quite obvious—the hardliners are more organised and influential than ever before as they vigorously pursue the formation of parallel structures. That gives them an enormous ability to undercut the support for a deal with the Maoists rank and file. Prachanda will have to work overtime on his persuasion skills, but more importantly, giving them an ownership in the decision-making process will go a long way. Only Dev Gurung has been continuously involved in the peace process from this camp. Despite his posturing, Gurung is the only one who understands the complications and the nuances of the peace process. Others have been largely shut out from engagement with other parties. Most of them were in jails in India when the process started, but later

the party headquarters deliberately gave them no role. That needs to change if Dahal wants to avoid an all out assault from the Baidya camp.

In the Nepali Congress, there is also a segment that is opposed to giving up on the party’s long-held stance. In fact, some leaders close to the party establishment are in favour of inking a deal and joining the current government. The opposition within Nepali Congress is partly opportunistic—jockeying for the party’s internal power-sharing—and partly fanned by the conservative element within it that has never accepted the 2005/06 peace framework. Sushil Koirala, like Prachanda, will have to reach out to his opponents.

Support or opposition to further compromises that could lead to a final resolution also depends on how far and

wide the ownership of the peae process is spread and on calculations of who stands to gain or lose in next elections. The three parties will have to keep up the tempo of current engagement, while addressing each other’s sensitivities.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The lone wolf

APR 02 - The peace process enters a crucial phase, with the extended Constituent Assembly’s term nearing an end. The role of the UCPN (Maoist)—especially the hard line faction—will be instrumental in deciding which way the process will go.

The hard line faction is led by none other than 64-year-old Mohan Vaidya ‘Kiran’, mentor to many revolutionaries including party Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal himself. It is Kiran who holds the key to whether Maoists will demonstrate further flexibility in the days to come. Vaidya—who is also the party’s Senior Vice Chairman and chief ideologue—takes pride in the “consistency” of his beliefs. Though—in typical Marxist-speak—he admits that too much of anything is dangerous, he has no doubt about his correct diagnosis of Nepal’s problems.

“I have never been in the minority,” says Vaidya, referring to the two-line struggle that is integral to any communist party.

“Many have come and gone over the last 50 years of my political career, but my line has always prevailed.”

Vaidya’s relationship with Dahal is key to understanding the Maoists’ fortunes. The two have had a complex love-hate relationship. Vaidya, cognizant of his limitations, sees Dahal as a vehicle for implementation of his ideologies. Dahal, meanwhile, finds him a useful ally in the battle for leadership against Baburam Bhattarai. At times the two have worked together, and at other instances, they have worked against each other. Though Vaidya has considerable influence within the party rank and file, the chairman and his men control the party and its frontal organisations. Vaidya admits that he doesn’t quite trust the Chairman, yet he says he doesn’t entirely distrust him. “Marxism calls for a healthy dose of scepticism in everything,” he says as if to justify the mistrust between the two as natural.

Vaidya maintains that his faith in the chairman never deterred even during the insurgency. “I have never had a problem working with or under a younger leader. In fact, I spotted Dahal’s talent very early on and paved the way for his eventual elevation as the party leader,” he says, referring to his 1986 resignation that made room for Dahal as CPN (Mashal)’s general secretary.

In the past, Vaidya had been full of praise for Dahal. In one interview, he said that no communist leader has been able to reach Dahal’s height because the chairman has unique abilities to “analyse the prevailing situation and accommodate disparate views.” But in recent years, he hasn’t concealed his disillusionment with Dahal’s tactics. If the party leadership goes against the aspirations of the people, Vaidya says, “that will be the end of it.”

A student of Nepali literature and philosophy, he may not exude much gravitas in public appearances, but in private meetings, he is known to be argumentative and persuasive. Besides other communist heavyweights, Mao’s successes in China and even failures have had a deep impact on him. He sees himself as the party’s conscience, and says that he is the one who is standing between the party’s revisionist ideals and fizzling out of its revolutionary dreams. He has a ready historical reference to back up his argument. “A Constituent Assembly isn’t something new. It was first raised by the Nepali Congress in the 1950s. The Congress leadership went soft, the king took advantage, and that subsequently led to miscarriage of the revolution,” he says, arguing that various previous uprisings such as those in the 1950s, 80s, and the 1990 movements all eventually amounted to nothing as leaders couldn’t stand firm at the height of the movement. “I don’t want people to go through repeated revolutions that shed considerable amount of blood for nothing,” he says. He appears determined to take the current ‘revolution’ to its climax—on the path of socialism.

Life’s travails have shaped and hardened Vaidya’s ideology over the decades. Born in a poor Brahmin family in Pyuthan, he saw both the pretence of the upper caste and poverty’s hardships firsthand. He had an inherent dislike of the discrimination the caste system meted out those on the ‘lower order.’ While studying in Janata Secondary school in Pyuthan, he became an active member of the Nepal Communist Party in 1964. As the then-royal regime began cracking down on communists, he fled to Dang, where he began teaching Nepali. He began leading the district committee of the party, and his association with communist leaders Mohan Bikram Singh, Nirmal Lama, and Manmohan Adhikari led to the formation of the party’s Central Committee (CC) in 1971. While on a trip to Pokhara as in-charge of the Western region, Vaidya was arrested and sent to Salyan in 1972. After spending nearly 18 months in prison, he was finally released in 1974. While he was still in prison, the party’s Fourth Convention took place and he was elected a CC member.

But Vaidya broke away in 1984 after differences with Singh became irreconcilable over what he calls Singh’s authoritarian style—one must note the irony as this is the charge Vaidya levels at Dahal today. He formed a new party, Communist Party of Nepal (Mashal). Vaidya became the general secretary of the new party at the Fifth Congress held in Gorakhpur, India. Among the CC members who were elected at the congress were current Maoist leaders like Dahal, Dev Gurung, and C.P. Gajurel.

In 1986, Mashal reformulated its ideology to include Maoism, and opposed the then-Panchayat elections. To subvert the electoral process, the party launched limited attacks on police posts in Kathmandu and vandalised a statue of king Tribhuvan, which became known as the Sector Incident. Vaidya says he didn’t have any prior information to the acts, and resigned from party leadership taking responsibility for the misadventures. Dahal was named general secretary the same year. As the uprising against the Panchayat regime peaked in 1990, CPN (Mashal) and Masal unified, and in 1991, they merged with the CPN (Fourth Convention) to form the Unity Centre, which would eventually launch the ‘People’s War’. Vaidya was arrested and put in jail in Siliguri during the insurgency while undergoing an eye surgery in 2003. “Our autocratic Panchayati jails were much better than jails in so-called democratic India,” he recounts, perhaps hinting at the reasons behind his hard-line stance against India.

At the Palungtar plenum last year, both Dahal and Vaidya declared India and its domestic ‘reactionary allies’ as principal contradictions of the “Nepali revolution”. They argued that India was hell-bent on preventing the Maoists from coming to power. In fact, Vaidya went a step further and proposed that the party should immediately start preparing for a revolt against India.

Of late, Vaidya and Bhattarai seem to have realised the source of Dahal’s power: control over frontal organisations, especially, trade unions which contribute most to the party coffers. This has resulted in a three-way split in some fronts, including the All Nepal Trade Union Federation. The internal schism manifested into clashes between the leaders of all three factions of ANTUF. The party was forced to disband the union, and though the rumours about the party’s imminent split have become vociferous, Vaidya scoffs at the suggestion that he would be the one to endanger it. A leader close to Dahal said a few months ago that Vaidya would split the party if he can secure the support of 5,000-7,000 Maoist combatants, and that Bhattarai would do the same if he can garner the support of 100 Maoist lawmakers. Vaidya dismisses such claims. “I have always been for the unity of the party,” he says, but not before adding that he can’t speak for others.

An ageing Vaidya sees himself and the party he has nurtured as the vanguard Nepal’s communist movement. As Maoists leaders get versed in the trappings of open politics, he maintains a lonely vigil against the “UML-isation” of the Maoists. Whether Vaidya can find a way to work with his chairman to conclude the peace process amid his fears and prejudices remains to be seen.

In the eye of many storms

In the eye of many storms
In Politics on November 13, 2010 at 12:24 pm

NOV 13 – Fifty-five-year-old Gopal Kiraty’s simple appearance belies his fiery character. His health may be frail—his involvement in the Maoist insurgency has taken quite a toll (veins disorder)—but his fighting spirit remains. He lives in a modest rented apartment in Anamnagar with his wife. This is luxury compared to what a lot of his colleagues in villages have, and he is mindful of the gap it has created. “For the sake of the office I occupy, this is a necessary evil,” he says referring to the apartment and little luxury he can indulge in. Kiraty likes to shake things up. “I am not a media savvy person, but if the things I do drag me to the limelight, that is probably a good thing,” he says. All his modesty and Spartan existence stands in contradiction to his headline-grabbing acts. He has been a controversial figure from his ministerial debut. As the first Minister for Federal and Cultural Affairs of a federal republic Nepal, he tried to launch a ‘nationalistic purge’ in one of the holiest sites of the Hindus, the Pashupatinath temple. He drew up a plan to simplify the administrative units of Nepal by proposing to create 800 districts and seven large metropolises. In the latest instalment of his iconoclastic act, he led the team that hurled shoes at the Indian ambassador to Nepal, Rakesh Sood, triggering a diplomatic crisis. He wasn’t always the firebrand ‘nationalist’ that he is today. In 1983, he nearly became a “mercenary” by joining the British Gurkhas. He says his brother-in-law, Hari Narayan Rai, a local school headmaster in Solukhumbu—who was active in local communist circles—inspired him to change his mind by handing him Seema, a drama about the Gurkhas to read. Kiraty eventually gave up the idea of joining the ranks of the Gurkhas and instead gravitated towards left-leaning politics that led him to join the Maoists. He quickly rose through the ranks to become a politburo member, a Constituent Assembly member and then a minister. His colleagues describe him as passionate, someone who is willing to defy the party leadership. “Only the Chairman can reason with him,” says Hari Bhakta Kandel, a UCPN (Maoist) politburo member who has known him since 2000. Party insiders are quick to claim that none of Kiraty’s actions were in line with party policies. He has little formal education, but doesn’t elaborate on why that was so. Party colleagues in typical communist-lingo say he has no “bourgeoisie degree.” But even without a formal education, Kiraty displays a brand of politics he likes to call nationalistic. For example, he sought the removal of Indian Bhattas (priests) from the Pashupati temple as soon as he became a minister. “The presence of Indian priests epitomized our cultural dependence, in order to change that it was necessary to appoint Nepali priest instead,” he says The opportunity seemed to fall in his lap when the five Bhattas submitted their resignation once the new government was formed. Traditionally, Pashupati priests always tender their resignation in a similar fashion, and by tradition, the government of the day turns it down. Kiraty, instead, accepted the resignation. It was, after all, a Eureka moment for him. “As far as I was concerned, I felt quite relieved that the opportunity had presented itself,” he says. Instead, the acceptance of the resignation snowballed into a much bigger issue. It was immediately brought before the Supreme Court. “Contrary to our expectations, the SC didn’t issue a show cause notice; rather, it issued an interim order. If they would have issued a show cause notice, we would have a strong case in our hands,” Kiraty says. The regulations of Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT) requires that the Mul Bhatta (Chief priest) to be a member of PADT management committee. But that contravenes with Nepal’s constitutional provision that requires any individual to be a Nepali citizen to qualify for political appointments, and this fit with Kiraty’s logic that the chief priest has to be a Nepali citizen to fulfil both the provisions of the constitution and PADT. For seven days until the SC order was received, Nepali priests were in charge. “I think that was quite an achievement. The incident has done much to raise national cultural awareness,” he says, reflecting on the issue now. But Kiraty isn’t just known for the Pashupati controversy. His plans for state restructuring were equally eye-raising when one morning he proposed the country be divided into 800 districts and seven large metropolises. Many saw that as a trial balloon by the Maoists to abandon federalism. But Kiraty refutes the allegations. “There is a narrow understanding of federalism in Nepal. All we want to do is further devolve the power of local bodies in a manner that makes state services easily accessible to all citizens alike no matter where they live,” he says. Kiraty explains his idea further. A trip to access state’s services shouldn’t be more than a day’s work, but that’s hardly the case in many remote districts. A return trip to district headquarter of Sankhuwashaba from Kimathanka is at least 14 days, he says. He feels his proposal is the right pill for ensuring good governance at the local level. “The idea is to make administrative units geographically smaller and closer to where people live,” he says. Kiraty is a political leader who has thrived on controversies, yet he believes the issues he has raised have helped his party mainstream many of its agendas. Though he says the attack on the Indian Ambassador wasn’t premeditated and that the locals got carried away, he doesn’t go quite as far as regretting it. “There are voices, including from within our own party, calling for action against those who threw shoes. It will be wrong to take action against the people and I will not lie low if that happens.” Kiraty argues that unless the Indian state treats Nepal as a “respectable sovereign state”, such protests will continue to happen. “No other ambassador to Nepal has been seen as interfering in Nepal’s internal affairs.” His actions seem to be governed by his reading of Marxist dialectic that encourages controversy and rational discussion to resolve disagreements, rather than practical considerations. That makes him unpredictable and a loose canon at times. But with his recent act, Kiraty is back to what he does best: raise his voice on an issue in a way that makes everybody else as uncomfortable as they can get, including his own party.

Through a (narrow) looking glass

India’s security-centric policies makes even the simplest of bilateral problems intractable.

On June 29 Indian Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh told 25 print editors that 25 per cent of the Bangladeshi population was anti-Indian—inadvertently triggering a diplomatic crisis in the aftermath. Singh’s comment was meant to be off-the-record, but the whole transcript of the interaction with the editors made it in the public domain after it was published in the PMO website-which was later removed.

“At least 25 per cent of the population of Bangladesh swear by the Jamiat-ul-Islami [sic] and they are very anti-Indian, and they were in the clutches, many times, of the ISI,” Singh said according to reports.

If that is the method by which New Delhi makes its calculation about its friends and enemies, most of the South Asian countries surrounding India would qualify as anti-Indians. By that standard more than a third of Nepali population would be anti-India given that they voted for the Maoists.

The comment from Dr Singh, who is soft-spoken and mild-mannered, came at a time when he is preparing to visit Dhaka. Fortunately Delhi and Dhaka have managed to improve ties considerably since the Awami Leauge government came to power in 2008. But the fact that it was meant to be off-the-record, indicates that the prime minister was aware of the sensitivity and gravity of the “information” he was passing off. Such a comment reflects poorly not only on Indian political leadership’s judgement, but also how its agencies process information strictly in black and white categories.

The problem lies therein. India’s neighbourhood policy is obsessively security-centric and that regularly makes even the simplest of bilateral problems intractable, taking decades to resolve. Of course, not everything India does in its neighbourhood is purely out of security concern and security is not the entire sum of its bilateral relationships. To be fair, it has supported the growth of democratic and pluralistic society in the region. It spends majority of its foreign assistance in the region-often amounting to millions of dollars. Nepal receives billions of rupees every year in bilateral assistance. But the high-handed approach of India’s bureaucrats makes its neighbours uncomfortable and suspicious about the New Delhi’s larger game plan. Some of these issues are a product of unfavourable perception partly shaped by historical and cultural baggage, but certainly India hasn’t done itself a favour by allowing the perception to perpetuate. It is also extra-sensitive to presence of extra-regional powers, especially China and to some extent US and EU countries in what it considers its sphere of influence Why is New Delhi not assured even when Dhaka has a very India-friendly government at the moment? There are many reasons, but primary among them is that its neighbours do not share New Delhi’s security concerns-making them uncooperative. This leads the security agencies to conclude that a country X or party Y is destructive to their interests—an ‘either you are with us or against us’ argument of sorts.

Over the years, India has also failed to develop a security doctrine that is shared by even its neighbours-allowing genuine Indian concerns to be perceived unfavourably as meddling.

Every time the Indians forward a proposal or make demands relating to security, its neighbours get suspicious about its intent. Often, the suspicion manifests itself into strong security dilemma forcing them even to reach out to “extra-regional powers” like China or the US to balance Indian overtures. There cannot be a purely unilateral security approach without the regional ownership of its partners. And no security doctrine is going to succeed on its own. It needs to be integrated in a larger development and economic vision for the region.

New Delhi will have to revamp its public diplomacy in the region-projecting its values and vision for the region, not its fears and insecurities-and coordinating the works of its different agencies-giving it a degree of coherence.

Public resentment is not permanent, and it can be changed with proper set of policies. Take for example, the opinion about America in the Muslim world during the Bush era. After President Barrack Obama assumed the leadership of America, he consciously reached out to the Muslims. In two short years, the public across Arab countries are calling for American help in democratising their country. What George Bush failed with American military might and money, Obama succeed with his quiet diplomacy and sustained public engagement. New Delhi’s public statement on the importance it attaches to its neighbours has not been matched by its action. No Indian prime minister has visited Kathmandu since 1996 on an official visit.

“It appears that there is neither an interest in the neighbourhood nor time for the political class in India to deal with its neighbours, except when it comes to Pakistan,” wrote Smruti S. Pattanaik in his journal article, “India’s Neighbourhood Policy: Perceptions from Bangladesh,” published earlier this year.

To many, its policies on Nepali or Bangladeshi imports, for example, give away the paradox that India is-a mismatch between its global-power ambition and small-power mindset.

“A resourceful and capable India, therefore, has appeared to the smaller neighbours as a petty trader of economic goods and advantages. India has not been able to earn political goodwill through its economic diplomacy despite the fact that it is the most important economic partner of some of its neighbours and has provided huge assistance and support to them,” SD Muni, an eminent Nepal expert in India, wrote in an article published in 2009.

Lack of coherent and integrated security and development policy makes waste of India’s leverage in the neighbourhood and the resources it pours. Without bringing more coherence to its bilateral dealings, India will forever struggle to make sense of its neighbourhood-making paranoid pronouncements. In turn its neighbours will be left to wonder about New Delhi’s words and deeds-leaving the door ajar for more “extra-regional” players-not less.
India’s security-centric policies makes even the simplest of bilateral problems intractable, taking decades to resolve

Of course, the onus also lies on its neighbours to understand New Delhi better, but as the regional power house with global ambition, India’s responsibilities are greater.

Silent revolution

Great things are happening in rural Nepal unknown to the media fixated on politics.

A cursory look across many towns and villages across eastern Nepal offers a promise of social and economic transformation. Sleepy bazaars have become bustling towns, villages on the periphery are fast becoming a sort of suburbs—thanks to improved road connectivity, expanding internal markets, rising commodity and land prices, and above all, a rise in the purchasing power of average Nepalis with increased flow of remittance. Of course, the trend isn’t limited to eastern Nepal; but given the presence of better infrastructure and basic services, the region is better poised to make a leap.

A recent report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), The Rise of Asia’s Middle Class, has quantified the size of Nepal’s middle class at 23 percent of the population (or 6.1 million people). Middle class is defined as having a daily earning of between US$ 2-20. Though the income categorisation appears somewhat faulty, there is no denying that Nepal’s middle class is rising. The rise has been contributed by more than one member contributing to the family income. Even for farmers, traditionally the poorest segment of the population, farming is not the only source of income generation anymore. Remittance has played a key part in slashing the poverty rate. Its contribution to the GDP is over 23 percent.

With a steady cash flow from many income sources, today an average village cooperative boasts over Rs 1 million in deposits—an amount that can easily be used for cooperative businesses. A high unemployment rate is also sowing the seeds of entrepreneurism

among youth. Gulf returnees are bringing skills, and most importantly, the work ethic and discipline to toughen it out, which is required for entrepreneurial success. There needs to be a proper empirical study to ascertain the depth of this silent transformation taking place. But the general discourse is still dictated by Kathmandu-centric politics and the media’s urban-centric coverage.

Even at the local level, everyone complains about the political situation and the impact of a protracted transition on employment generation and business opportunities. Desperate talk about wanting to go abroad for employment and settlement is not uncommon, yet what is also becoming common is educated youth taking up self-employment or start-ups.

An acquaintance was a teacher at a higher secondary school in Kavre. He gave up his job and returned to his native Jhapa to take up cattle rearing and supplying milk to local dairies. He says it is harder work, but more money as well. Another individual I know went through various jobs without much success before starting a successful poultry farmer’s cooperative. Today, the farmers themselves run

some of the meat stalls—removing the middle man who exploited them. Though he still complains about lack of a supporting environment, he isn’t thinking about quitting. In fact, he is thinking of expansion.

For every success story, there are many busted ideas; yet this process is making Nepalis more adaptive to the changing situation. Reinventing yourself to fit a different career mould is not an easy task. But as career counsellors will tell you, those who do it have a higher chance of staying afloat even during the rough and tumble. Employment in the Gulf countries is also providing much needed international exposure to Nepalis from even the most remote part of the country. Many return home with some cash after a few years inspired to set up their own start-ups.

Though high migration from villages to urban centres and even abroad is still the norm, reverse migration is also taking place as road connectivity has pushed up land prices even in the hinterlands. Subsequently, many entrepreneurs who had left their villages are suddenly seeing more business opportunities in small towns and villages than big cities. There is tremendous room for growth for both small businesses and services even in the current environment. Of course, not all is well.

Prospects for large-scale industrial revolution remain hobbled by rising costs of production and transportation, trigger-happy unions and acute power shortages, among many other problems. Even by a regional comparison, we are not doing as well as we should be. Bangladesh on average is doing better than us despite the many problems it faces. But that doesn’t take away the fact that even during the insurgency period, the Nepali economy achieved a steady growth and continues to do so. Much of the social and economic changes are taking place despite the government.

Unfortunately, Kathmandu-centric politics continues to hijack public discourse even though the pace of social and economic change in the towns and villages provides a real basis to underpin a true revolution. But with a new-found focus on infrastructure development in Kathmandu, the tone for economic development is being set right, though belatedly. New highways are in the pipeline, connecting remote parts of the country.

The budgetary allocation for infrastructure development this year stands at Rs 37.19 billion for roads, drinking water projects and housing programmes. Of this amount, Rs 27 billion, including Rs 2.51 billion for maintenance, was allocated for roads and bridges; while Rs 4.83 billion went to drinking water and Rs 3.2 billion for housing programmes.

Of these, the Mid-Hill Lokmarga connecting Chiyabhanjyang in Panchthar district

in the Eastern Region with Jhulaghat in Baitadi in the Western Region is close to completion. The 1,770 km long highway links at least 23 hilly districts across 12 zones. The road passes through Panchthar, Dhankuta, Bhojpur, Khotang, Okhaldhunga, Udaypur, Sindhuli, Kavre, Bhaktapur, Kathmandu, Dhading, Chitwan, Tanahu, Kaski, Parbat, Baglung, Rukum, Surkhet, Jajarkot, Dailekh, Achham, Doti, Dadheldhura and Baitadi districts. The proposed 7.5-m wide road will connect the eastern part of the country with the west, thus stimulating growth and providing market access to agro products.

The degree of change may vary from region to region and district to district, but the form of change is similar across Nepal’s 4,000 villages and adjacent small and big towns. If the preoccupation in Kathmandu can be diverted from self-defeating politics, the situation is ripe in Nepal for a major transformation.