June 20, 2001


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G Parthasarathy

A scarred kingdom

The shocking tragedy that engulfed Nepal's royal family when the traditional Friday night get-together turned into an appalling carnage is going to leave deep scars on the psyche of Nepal's people and its body politic -- scars that will take years to heal. The people in Nepal virtually worshipped their monarchy and will not easily reconcile themselves to the grim truths that they have to face up to as a nation, following the palace massacre.

The country now faces a situation where public misgivings about the legitimacy of the present monarchical order are openly voiced. The Nepali Congress government led by G P Koirala is seen as weak, faction-ridden and corrupt. Grievances in the countryside over the perceived lack of social justice and grassroots economic development are evident from the growing influence of the Maoists, who now have a virtual free run in the mountain districts of western Nepal.

While it is tempting to attribute growing Maoist influence to China's role in the Himalayan kingdom, in actual fact the movement has drawn support primarily because of the lack of effective and responsive governance by successive governments in Kathmandu over the past decade.

While the government has introduced an Integrated Security and Development Programme to deal with issues of growing rural discontent, it is not likely to make much headway without a measure of grassroots democracy and empowerment of the weaker sections of the rural people who have had to long bear the inequities of a feudal rural order.

The army has been deployed in some rural areas. But the absence of consultation between the palace and the government has rendered its deployment quite meaningless. There have also been delays in setting up an armed police force duly equipped and trained to deal with the situation.

While the Nepali Congress government is comfortably placed with 113 seats in the 205-member parliament, its record of governance is perceived to be far from distinguished. The ruling party is deeply divided by factional rivalries, with former prime ministers Krishna Prasad Bhattarai and Sher Bahadur Deuba missing no opportunity to discredit and undermine Prime Minister Koirala.

The ruling dispensation has to deal with the growing public perception of widespread corruption. It has also displayed an inability to develop a coherent and comprehensive strategy to deal with either rural disaffection or the problems of urban unemployment arising from sluggish economic growth. There are also suspicions that sections of the palace establishment may be stoking the flames of discontent to discredit the democratic order.

In these circumstances, there is no dearth of people seeking to arouse the latent anti-Indian sentiments amongst sections of the Nepalese public and establishment. Mercifully, both main political parties realise that the dynamics of the Indo-Nepal relations are such that whipping up anti-Indian sentiments does not serve their long-term interests. Those who took a virulently anti-Indian stand on issues like the 1996 Mahakali Agreement with India were virtually wiped out in the last election. But New Delhi must constantly be prepared for situations where grievances, real or imaginary, are exploited to whip up anti-Indian sentiments.

The recent carnage appears to have created a vacuum in both the political and monarchical order in Nepal. The absence of transparency, clumsy attempts to muzzle the press and the constantly changing versions about what really happened have resulted in the legitimacy of the monarchical order and the credibility of the political dispensation being questioned.

This is an environment in which extremist and anti-Indian groups are likely to step up their activities and attempt to expand their influence. A stable and responsive government structure that is seen to be legitimate and can address and fulfil its people's aspirations is vital not only for the people of Nepal, but also for regional stability and co-operation.

In the absence of responsive and effective governance, the Maoist menace is likely to spread across Nepal and establish linkages with groups like the People's War in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

New Delhi has to adopt a discreet and low-key approach in extending a friendly hand to Nepal to enable it to come out of its present difficulties. The aim should be to assist in every possible manner, so that the monarchy and the political leadership can together re-establish their credibility and co-operatively address the problems Nepal faces today.

This effort should be undertaken discreetly without giving any section of the Nepalese populace reason to believe that we are playing "Big Brother".

It is obvious that Nepal's real problems today are economic. The ruling elite in Nepal would be well advised to see how the wise leadership of King Jigme Singye Wangchuk has led to Bhutan rapidly outstripping Nepal in economic growth and in the prosperity and welfare of its people.

A few years ago Bhutan's per capita income was around $230. This was at about the same level as Nepal's per capita income. After the construction of the 336 MW Chukha hydroelectric project, Bhutan's per capita income is around $600 today, with the country experiencing a remarkable improvement in its human development indicators. When construction of the 1020 MW Tala hydroelectric project is completed in 2004, Bhutan's per capita income will reach $1,000.

The leadership in Bhutan has placed primary emphasis on developing a relationship of mutually beneficial economic interdependence with India and fully exploited the Indian market. While Bhutan has shown sensitivity to Indian security concerns, the king has shown a remarkable sense of independence in disagreeing with India even on issues like nuclear policies. But such differences have been voiced and articulated in a befitting, discreet and dignified manner.

Nepal can take the fast track to prosperity if it chooses to focus on making its systems of governance more responsive, exploiting its immense hydroelectric and tourism potential and taking measures where Indian and other foreign investors find the industrial and business environment more congenial than in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

But tourists and businessmen are hardly likely to find Nepal an attractive destination if they are made to feel unwelcome or insecure. It is now time for Kathmandu and New Delhi to speed up the implementation of hydroelectric projects that will be of immense mutual benefit.

Nepal will reap the benefits of revenues from the sale of over 6000 MW of power once the projects envisaged in the Mahakali Agreement are implemented. This project could well come on stream in the next eight to ten years. Projects like the proposed Kosi High dam would not only generate a significant amount of power, but also be of immense benefit for flood control and irrigation. Interest in the massive 10,800 MW Karnali hydroelectric project has to be revived. The potential for India and Nepal co-operating for the mutual welfare of their peoples is thus immense.

It is true that the Nepalese found that our performance did not match the promises we made in some of the projects undertaken earlier. But the time has now come to focus all our energies on the development of tourism, hydroelectricity, irrigation and flood control projects and Nepal's industrial development.

The real challenge to our diplomacy lies in persuading political and public opinion in Nepal about the need to move ahead in a dynamic economic partnership. Nepal has to be made to feel that its legitimate concerns are being met and its aspirations fulfilled while forging a new economic partnership.

Despite the preferences and prejudices of political groups and political parties in India for particular individuals and parties in Nepal, we should not interfere with the democratic political processes of our neighbour.

New Delhi has done well to post highly regarded professional diplomats like K V Rajan and Deb Mukharji, who are capable of functioning in a low-profile yet effective manner, in the recent past to Nepal. Indians in Nepal, whether in the Himalayan kingdom as diplomats, businessmen or tourists, have to be sensitive to Nepalese sentiments and pride, even as we give new economic sinews to the relationship.

The red star hangs over Nepal
The Maoists now smell blood
Nepal's Greek tragedy
Who killed the royal family of Nepal?

G Parthasarathy

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