If Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Jaswant Singh ever thought of positioning himself as foreign minister or prime minister with broad appeal in the run-up to the next national elections, then he just blew his chances. On the concluding day of the party’s national executive meeting in New Delhi earlier this week, Singh said he felt “diminished” by the Maoist victory in recent elections in Nepal, going on to add that this was a “negative development.”
Listen to what Singh said, as he released the party’s foreign policy resolution on Monday, as reported by the Hindu newspaper : “As an Indian and a believer in ‘sanatan dharma’ (Hinduism), I feel diminished. … There are four ‘dhams’ (pilgrimage centres) in India and the fifth, Pashupati Nath, is in Nepal. There is nothing more secular than ‘sanatan dharma’. … This is a negative development.”
Singh’s comments confirm the worst fears among a large section of the Nepalese public that large parts of India still haven’t come to terms with the abolition of its Hindu monarchy and attendant rituals. In the run-up to elections in April, Nepalese journalists and political observers routinely pointed to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) “meddling”, especially in the Terai region, from neighbouring Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh.
Still, that was the VHP, an extremist faction of the “sangh parivar” (the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, family), which along with its many godmen sought to influence Nepal’s election result, in the hope that a fractured polity would not be able to remove the world’s only surviving Hindu monarch, Gyanendra. You could have argued that the BJP, a political party which ran the country for six years until 2004, and therefore, presumably, had a better understanding of both history and geopolitics, would have known better. The irony is that Jaswant Singh is one of a handful of leaders across the political spectrum with intimate knowledge of foreign affairs, defence and economics (he was minister in charge of each of these portfolios during the National Democratic Alliance, or NDA, government). As the key interlocutor with then US deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott, Singh drove home the message to the world’s most powerful country that a nuclear India had come to stay. From Kandahar to Riyadh, via Agra and Ashkabad, Singh was at the centre of India’s foreign policy story as it unfolded over those years.
The short point here is that for Jaswant Singh to have made those remarks about Nepal was not only bad form, it was also bad policy. After all, Singh has dealt with Nepal in his capacity as a key minister of the government of India. For him to say these things about a neighbouring country, especially one which has just held its first free and fair elections, is an exercise in surprising shortsightedness. If Jaswant Singh returns to office and if the Maoists are still in power — two big ifs, of course — you can bet the last of your slip-sliding rupee that Indo-Nepal relations will hit rock-bottom.
In fact, the BJP national executive threw up more surprises. If it wasn’t Jaswant Singh making noises about Nepal, there was Rajnath Singh redefining secularism for the rest of us, in terms of “dharmnirpeksh” (religion-neutral) and “panthnirpeksh” (sect-neutral). As the party savoured the sweet taste of success in Karnataka, it was time, Rajnath Singh felt, for India to move away from the former towards the latter.
In Karnataka’s aftermath, a victory which has considerably added to the national perception that the throne in Delhi is no longer as elusive for the BJP, it was left to L.K. Advani to announce that an expanded NDA will fight the next national elections with parties which “may not be ideologically aligned” to the BJP. Clearly, Advani wants to distance himself further and further away from the 6 December 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid, and mould himself into a leader with broader appeal.
But back to Nepal. The euphoria with which the Maoist-led Constituent Assembly evicted Gyanendra from the Narayanhity palace a week ago is slowly dissipating, as the interim prime minister, G.P. Koirala of the Nepali Congress, refuses to step down. With the Maoists continuing to argue that, as the single largest party, they have the right to both positions of president and prime minister, the political stalemate in Nepal could have disastrous consequences.
According to Nepal’s Kantipur newspaper, the newly installed Indian ambassador, Rakesh Sood, has met Prachanda, the Maoist chief, to ask him whether his party wants both posts, or would it be happy with just one. Perhaps Sood is trying to broker a compromise between the Maoists and the Nepali Congress, and trying to persuade both sides to respect the verdict of the people, which did not give either party a complete majority.
Sood would be well aware—as is the rest of Nepal—of the statements of his own national security adviser M.K. Narayanan who, barely 10 days before the April elections, announced that New Delhi would like the Nepali Congress to come back to power in Kathmandu. And although, ever since, the government has sought to reassure all parties that it is not interested in taking sides, there are those who believe that New Delhi should weigh in with its old friend Koirala, ask him to step down and concede that the Maoists are at least the single largest political party in the elections.
Truth is, Nepal has always had a special relationship with India. Both the BJP and the Congress party would do well to remember that.
Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor and writes on the intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics every week.
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