Baburam Bhattarai’s tilted bridge

How Nepal might see relations with India

During an interaction in March this year, Baburam Bhattarai, now prime minister of Nepal, made some points that should interest observers of international relations.

(These were made before he became prime minister and might indicate his personal thoughts and inclinations.)

– Nepal sees itself as being located in between South Asia and East Asia. It is now engaged in a democratic restructuring of social, cultural and international relations.

– Nepal wishes to become a bridge between India and China. For reasons of history, culture and geography this bridge will be a “tilted bridge”, inclined towards South Asia. That said, Nepal seeks an “objective and balanced relationship” with its neighbours and is not “courting” one or the other.

(He also made two points which I interpret as being designed to coerce India into getting over its reluctance to support a Maoist-led government)

– While Maoists will not be able to take over Nepal given the internal balance, a “people’s revolt” cannot be ruled out of the constitutional processes remain suspended, and if the Maoists are denied the share of power that they won at the elections.

– If the political process breaks down, a relapse of armed conflict could make Nepal like another Afghanistan, which would draw in regional and international powers.

Pax Indica: Five neighbourhood paradoxes

Five neighbourhood paradoxes

You might have noticed that, relatively speaking, India’s policy towards the United States or Japan is far more coherent than towards, say, Nepal. Over the last few years, New Delhi was able to challenge the age-old dogma of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), strike a favourable bargain with Washington and break into the international nuclear mainstream. Contrast that with the Indian government’s inability to play any palpable role in the political upheavals taking place in all the countries across its borders. The consensus, confidence and coherence that is increasingly visible in India’s dealings with the world’s powers is conspicuously missing in its dealings with its immediate neighbours. Why? Because neighbourhood policy is trapped in five paradoxes.

The paradox of proximity: While a peaceful and stable neighbourhood is conducive to India’s growth and development, domestic politics circumscribes New Delhi’s ability to intervene coherently. Look no further than the way the UPA government handled the Sri Lankan civil war. A government that names every fixed object built with public funds after Rajiv Gandhi could still not bring itself to unequivocally oppose the terrorist organisation that killed him. It’s not as if the LTTE enjoyed massive support in Tamil Nadu — it’s popularity waned after it assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 — but such was the political calculus that untrammeled support for the Sri Lankan government became impossible. This opened the gates for China to make inroads into India’s southern neighbour, the implications of which will unfold over the next few years.

It’s a similar story with Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal, and not always political. S D Muni, one of India’s leading authorities on international relations, says that the PWD engineers in the Indian districts adjoining Nepal have a say in New Delhi’s policy towards its Himalayan neighbour, because water-sharing is a key bilateral issue.

The paradox of power: as India’s geopolitical power has grown so has its fear of overreach. In a way, this is a reversal of the 1980s when the Rajiv Gandhi government’s ambitions were not always matched by adequate economic and military capacity. Like his mother, Rajiv Gandhi understood and was unhesitant to project power where necessary. Sending paratroopers to the Maldives to foil a coup by armed mercenaries, getting the Indian Air Force to drop relief supplies over Jaffna in defiance of the Sri Lankan government and ordering military exercises that implicitly threatened Pakistan were bold uses of power. Unfortunately, Indira Gandhi had severely damaged the domestic economic engines necessary to generate and sustain that power, ultimately resulting in the overreach in Sri Lanka. That experience so scarred India’s politicians and policymakers that the use of military force outside India’s borders has been practically renounced as a tool of statecraft.

Instead of a careful projection of power within India’s (much greater) capacity today, we have strategy by bureaucracy. When you hear policy-makers say ”we will only send troops under the UN flag” you wonder whether our armed forces exist to serve our interests or those of the United Nations. This is not an argument for a trigger-happy policy. Rather, that India is incapable of protecting its interests without rethinking its policy on overseas military deployments.

The paradox of engagement: New Delhi talks to the powerless but can’t talk to those in power, or vice versa. It’s most obvious in Pakistan. General Ashfaq Kayani is the man calling the shots. India has no direct channel of communication with him. The people New Delhi does talk to — the likes of President Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani — have little say in the subjects that New Delhi talks to them about. This creates an illusion of movement in bilateral relations when, fundamentally, there is none. To be fair, the fact that Pakistan has such a complicated political structure (I’m being charitable here) is not India’s fault. But if the Americans can rejig their foreign policy apparatus such that some people talk to the generals while others talk to the politicians, surely, so can we.

It’s somewhat similar in Nepal, where we don’t properly talk to the Maoists. It’s the opposite in Myanmar, where we speak only to the generals and have so ignored the beleagured democratic opposition that, in the event that there is a change in circumstances in that benighted country, New Delhi will find itself needing to make new friends fast. Yes, circumstances are unlikely to change, but that’s no excuse to not hedge your bets.

The paradox of process: we are relying on processes that are only feasible when they achieve the outcomes they seek. In simple English, that’s called putting the cart before the horse. That absurd game of dossiers & lawsuits with Pakistan is a case in point. It would have been meaningful to use legal processes if India and Pakistan enjoyed the kind of normal relations that exist, say, between Malaysia and Thailand. But since they don’t, and Pakistan’s legal system is a joke (I’m not being charitable this time) dossiers & lawsuits is not only ridiculous. It is counterproductive, because anyone who reads newspapers will be put off by Islamabad’s shifty, brazen, too-clever-by-half attitude.

And finally, there’s the paradox of neighbourhood—we can’t choose our neighbours, but we have. For centuries, Gujaratis have been neighbours with East Africans. Keralites are neighbours of the Gulf Arabs, Tamils of Malaysia and Singapore. New Delhi doesn’t consider these countries neighbours. Yet they are. Treating them as if they are not has trapped us into a mindset of living in a troubled, unstable neighbourhood. This is one unfortunate fallout of the faulty conceptualisation of “South Asia” as being limited to the countries of the subcontinent. Once you see the neighbourhood as what it is, and includes East Africa, the Gulf, and South East Asia, you’ll find it full of opportunities, not vexed problems.

The first of these paradoxes might well be structural — foreign policy problems are more difficult to solve when entangled with domestic politics. But the other paradoxes are those of agency — we might be able to escape them if we want to. If we want to.

(This is the unedited version of my column in Yahoo! India)

Pax Indica: We are not South Asian

The term ‘South Asia’ is an attempt to appropriate the Indian subcontinent’s geography while denying its composite civilisational history

At a seminar a couple of weeks ago, one of the organisers argued that the “South Asian identity” has made inroads across the world. He supported this argument with an example. Many universities in the United States, he said, now have bhangra and garba troupes, often consisting of people of entirely non-South Asian backgrounds.

I nearly fell off my chair.

There is nothing ‘South Asian’ about bhangra and garba, just as there is nothing ‘South Asian’ yoga, ayurveda or tandoori chicken (when was the last time you went to a North South Asian restaurant?). Actually, there’s nothing South Asian about qawwals, ghazals or the Multani raga (when was the last time you went to a South Asian classical concert?). In fact—and you might think, I’m stretching it—there’s nothing South Asian about Nepal, Bhutan, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. If you measure Asia north to south, roughly along the 120°E longitude from the Siberia’s Arctic coast to Indonesia’s southern islands, you’ll find the subcontinent more or less in the middle. Geographically, if there is a South Asia, then the self-confessed ‘South Asians’ are neither in it nor from it. Read the rest at Yahoo! India »

649 – The year China first invaded India

The geopolitical implications of Xuanzang’s round-trip

The Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s journey to India and back is well-known (see Samanth Subramanian’s review of Mishi Saran’s book in Pragati). What is not so well-known is that his trip led, unintentionally, to a diplomatic spat between the China and India that ultimately resulted in the first Chinese military expedition to ‘punish’ the Indians.

Harsha-vardhana of India had earlier sent emissaries to Chang’an and in 643, around the time of Xuanzang’s departure from India, a Tang mission under a military official called Wang Xuance had repaid the compliment. Five years later, in 648, Wang Xuance was back in India at the head of a more impressive embassy that was doubtless influenced by Xuanzang’s reports on Harsha.

But this time ambassador Wang Xuanxe received a very different reception. Harsha had died the previous year, his empire was already crumbling, and a Brahminical reaction had set in against the Buddhist community. Evidently, Xuanzang’s long sojourn and his influence on Harsha had encouraged the idea that Chinese support was enabling Indian Buddhists to subvert the political primacy claimed by India’s priestly caste. Wang Xuance’s 648 mission was therefore waylaid. Its valuables were stolen, its personnel detained and Wang Xuance himself barely escaped with his life. He escaped to Tibet.

There he took advantage of a rare moment of amity in Sino-Tibetan relations. In the 630s the great Srong-brtsan-sgam-po [Songtsen Gampo] had been engaged in sporadic warfare with Tang forces in both Sichuan and Qinghai. Unusually the Tibetans fought not to keep the Chinese out of Tibet but to secure closer relations with them, or rather, to secure parity of treatment with that extended by Chang’an to their local rivals…(In 641) with a view to ending their raids, Tang Taizong had granted the Tibetans what was in effect a ‘peace-through-kinship’ treaty. It was sealed as usual with the dispatch of an imperial princess. Further exchanges followed, the Tibetans regarding them as evidence of Tang vassalage and the Tang as evidence of Tibetan vassalage.

Into this happy state of mutual misunderstanding straggled Wang Xuance on his way back from his rebuff in India. The rout of an embassy from the Son of Heaven, not to mention the Heavenly Qaghan, could not go unavenged. Wang Xuance demanded troops for a retaliatory attack on India and the Tibetans obliged. It was thus a joint Sino-Tibetan force that in 649, probably by way of the Chumbi pass between Sikkim and Nepal, crossed the Great Himalaya and inflicted heavy defeat on Harsha’s successors. ‘Thereupon’, says the standard Tang history, ‘India was overawed.’

Elsewhere it is recorded that Wang Xuance brought back as prisoner to Chang’an the man who had supposedly usurped Harsha’s throne. A statue of ‘this contumacious Indian’ was erected among the many in front of Tang Taizong’s tomb and ‘so [the Indian] found lasting fame—but as a trophy and an emblem’. Needless to say, Indian tradition is blissfully ignorant of all this. The Sino-Tibetan incursion probably affected only a corner of Bengal and had no known repercussions. Though a Chinese assault on Indian territory had been shown to be feasible, it would not be repeated until the 1960s. [John Keay/China – A History pp243-244]

Another account offers more and slightly different details:

With the growth of close relations between Nepal and Tibet, Nepal became well known to China as well. In 648-49, during the reign of Narendradeva, son of Udayadeva II, who is believed to have succeeded his father to the kingship in 643, with the help of Tibet, the Nepalese and Tibetan forces combined to avenge an insult offered by a chief of Tirhut (Tirabhukti) to an embassy from China, led by [Wang Xuance] and proceeding to Harsha’s court. This chief of Tirhut is described incorrectly in Chinese accounts as the usurper of Harsha’s throne. [Ram Rahul/Making of Modern Nepal International Studies 16:1]

Someone, Ambassador Wang perhaps, might have inflated the status of the captive to impress the emperor.

Also, given that there is no concept of sovereign equality in the Chinese system of international relations, it is reasonable to speculate whether the Wang’s embassy itself might have been, much like what led to the ‘mutual misunderstanding’ with the Tibetans, a suggestion of paramountcy. Within the context of a backlash against Buddhist political influence, such a suggestion could well have provoked the treatment that Wang received. Not unlike the treatment the Manchu emperor meted out to the papal missionaries a millennium later.

Related Posts: On the New Himalayas and on India’s omphaloskepsis

Sunday Levity: But Foster, Gurkhas aren’t Pakistanis

Why Uncle Sam needs Pakistan (“Because of the Gurkhas” edition)

“Ignorance about India”, Narendra Singh Sarila writes, “was the reason why the Americans came to rely on British advice on questions concerning the subcontinent after its independence.” He quotes an anecdote to illustrate this:

In those days, the Americans’ understanding of India was extremely limited. To take an extreme example, John Foster Dulles, President Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state, had to be disabused by Walter Lippmann during a conversation on SEATO as late as in 1955, that Gurkha troops were not Pakistanis.

‘Look Walter’, Dulles said, ‘I’ve got to get some real fighting men in the south of Asia. The only Asians who can really fight are the Pakistanis. That’s why we need them in the Alliance. We could never get along without the Gurkhas.’ ‘But Foster’, Lippmann replied, ‘the Gurkhas aren’t Pakistanis, they’re Indians’. (Actually, Gurkhas are of Nepalese origin.) ‘Well’, responded Dulles, ‘they may not be Pakistanis but they’re Moslems.’ ‘No I’m afraid they’re not Moslems either; they’re Hindus’, Lippmann pointed out. [Dennis Kux, Disenchanted Allies pp72, quoted by Narendra Singh Sarila, The Shadow of the Great Game pp216]

Failed states index – a look under the hood

It’s not the ranking, it’s the change in the score

In 2005, when Foreign Policy magazine first published a failed state index, The Acorn argued that “rankings by themselves do not convey as much information as the direction of their change. How countries change their position, even by this imperfect measure, will be the thing to watch in future years.”

In fact, the rank on the league table is not so informative as the actual change in the country’s score. For instance, Pakistan’s rank improved this year (from the 9th most failing state in 2008 to the 10th in 2009). Yet, it’s total failure score increased from 103.8 to 104.1 (See the article on the magazine’s website). Assuming that the good people at Foreign Policy have used the same methodology year after year, this doesn’t suggest an improvement in Pakistan—it suggests a worsening of conditions.

Here’s a comparison of the actual score of countries in India’s neighbourhood over the last four years.

Data: Foreign Policy/Chart: The Acorn

It’s generally bad news: other than Bangladesh, state failure is worsening in the neighbourhood. Bhutan does best, but even its score has (surprisingly) fallen.

Related Post: A post on the 2006 index.

General Katawal stays

Prachanda’s actions isolate the Maoists

The question of the induction of the Maoist insurgents into the Nepalese army—a force they spent a decade fighting—has boiled over into, what else, a crisis.

Pushpa Kamal “Prachanda” Dahal, the Maoist prime minister, would like them to be absorbed immediately. Others, not least the army chief, thinks otherwise. That’s why the army chose to fill its vacancies with 2800 vacancies instead of absorbing Mr Dahal’s Maoist militants. While it is necessary to work out arrangements to employ the 23,000 Maoist militants, the army correctly argues that the one-time rebels must be “de-mobilised, rehabilitated and reintegrated” before they can join the national army. [See Damakant Jayshi’s op-ed]

On the surface it appears ‘reasonable’ for the prime minister to have the authority to sack the army chief. But it is important to note that Nepal is under an interim constitutional dispensation, with stability and indeed legitimacy depending on the tenous balance of political power among the main players. Mr Dahal’s decision to sack the army chief was unilateral and didn’t have the support of the other parties represented in his cabinet. President Ram Baran Yadav’s decision to overrule the prime minister on this matter leaves the Maoists isolated on the matter. [more on Republica and on Globespotting, TOI diplomatic editor Indrani Bagchi’s new blog]

So Mr Dahal might have to consume the humble momo on this one. Perhaps a face-saving formula can be found—the army chief, General Rookmangud Katawal, has after all only three more months in command. If this doesn’t happen, Nepal will go into a deeper, more violent crisis. We’ll know after the fierce one speaks.

Fierce vs Ray

Nepal’s Maoists splinter along predictable lines

Over at mesocosm Aditya Adhikari has cogent analysis of the factional disputes among Nepal’s Maoists.

(Prachanda), the Maoist chairman is facing the greatest threat to his leadership at a time when his party has gained the strongest position ever. According to conventional narrative, the Prachanda faction wishes to institutionalize the federal democratic republic line (by continuing the peace process, drafting the new constitution, and engaging in multi-party democracy) whereas the Kiran faction wishes to take immediate steps towards one-party dictatorship of the proletariat.

While Prachanda seeks to increase his party’s influence by gradual penetration into all aspects of society, Kiran desires a more extreme revolt that will immediately subjugate the enemy and bring the Maoists uncontested power. His faction is ambivalent towards the Maoists’ entry into government. They recognize that this potentially enables them to use the state for the purposes of the revolution. But they also realise that prolonged exposure to the daily workings of government will make it increasingly difficult to stage the crucial armed revolt necessary for the dictatorship of the proletariat.[mesocosm]

You should read the whole thing.

Socialising assets, privatising liabilities

What do you with a problem like Gyanendra?

From Nepal comes news of an royal billing dispute. After doing away with the monarchy and nationalising many of the royal assets—including the main royal palace—the government of the new republic wants King Gyanendra to cough up payment for the electricity the royal family used while he was still the monarch.

Oh, it is quite likely that Mr Gyanendra has a lot of private wealth arising from his numerous business ventures, but that’s not the point. Billing him for the electricity he used after stepping down is fine. The question is whether the financial liabilities he accumulated during the period he was the monarch can be turned into his personal liabilities now, when his royal assets have already been nationalised.

Lest you wonder—yes, the Maoists are in power. Going after the former monarch is the beginning of the slide down the slippery slope. Big landowners would be next. And rich businessmen might follow.

Pragati May 2008: Towards liberal nationalism

Issue 14 - Apr 2008

Issue Contents


Liberals, culture and nationalism Ravikiran S Rao
An opportunity exists for a new politics

Changing the broken wheel Raj Cherubal
The secular-right must champion economic freedom

Towards “that heaven of freedom” Gautam Bastian
A free nation of free citizens

Out of court Rohit Pradhan, Shashi Shekhar & Mukul Asher
Carry on the battle, but respect the court’s verdict


India as a rising great power; climate change and national security; India-Iran relations; to the brink; and trade across the Line of Control


The new currency of power Nitin Pai & Aruna Urs
A discussion on strategic affairs with K Subrahmanyam


Use the Tibet card Zorawar Daulet Singh
To settle the India-China dispute

Consensus must endure Dinesh Wagle
Maoists have the upper hand in the construction of the republic

Bottom-up dynamics Sushant K Singh
What attracts Africa to India and how it can be strengthened

Pressed by inflation Gulzar Natarajan
Easing supply bottlenecks is the right way to go


Memories of 1971 Amardeep Singh
A review of Tahmima Anam’s A Golden Age

Read excerpts | Download