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PRASHANT JHA in NEW DELHI


SUBHAS RAI

The Indian establishment doesn't try to hide anymore its irritation with the Nepali political parties trying to dodge elections and endanger the peace process that it helped broker and micromanage for the past two years.

In a series of interviews in New Delhi this week, Indian politicians and policy-makers said they would like to see the peace process come to its logical conclusion with elections in November.

"Remember we were the only ones pushing for June elections and the last few months have been proven right," one diplomat here told us, "problems have only increased since then. Missing the November date can have extremely destabilising consequences."

Delhi believes that the polls can lock the Maoists irreversibly into the mainstream, pave the way for stability, provide a platform to address other grievances and demands, and limit the role of the internationals, especially the UN.

South Block has been taking public positions on polls and sent strong messages privately to leaders. In Kathmandu, Ambassador Shiv Shankar Mukherjee has told Prime Minister Koirala that the government would face a severe legitimacy crisis if elections do not take place.

Former Indian intelligence officers met Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal recently in Siliguri passing on a similar message from New Delhi. External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee is reported to have personally shot down the proposal by Koirala and Dahal idea of converting the present interim legislature into a constituent assembly and instead pushing for polls.

At the same time, New Delhi realises the limits of its leverage in Kathmandu. "We can push, we can threaten, we use different channels to communicate the message but it finally boils down to the political will of the major parties and whether they want polls," an MEA source said.

What is new in foreign policy-making circles here in the past few months is a sense of pessimism, and a belief that the peace process has become shakier.

Delhi diplomats and analysts are satisfied with UNMIN's performance so far, but they want it to pack up and go as soon as possible. Even so, irrespective of the polls they admit UNMIN may have to stay on in some form for another six months to complete arms management. Although India may accept a limited extension of tenure, officials say an extension of UNMIN's mandate is out of the question. But what riles officials here is their belief that UNMIN is angling for a political role in the tarai, and even goading madhesi groups to ask for international mediation.

"This goes beyond what was decided when India let the UN in and Ian Martin should tell his officials to be restrained," one influential Nepal analyst said. New Delhi also blames Koirala for delaying taking a personal lead to appease madhesi groups while the crisis was still manageable. They have tried to get the message across to the prime minister, but say when it comes to the tarai Koirala refuses to listen to them. Officials say they don't want a further proliferation of madhesi groups and reportedly discouraged mainstream madhesi politicians, including NC and NSP dissidents, from forming a separate party. There have been allegations that India is supporting madhesi armed groups because Goit and Jwala Singh live in Bihar.

When asked about this, a former ambassador to Nepal testily posed his own questions: "Look, at who is accusing India of this? The Maoists. Where did they stay all along? Does it mean we were supporting them? Get your house in order instead of blaming and expecting us to come and clean the mess."

Indian policymakers seem more sanguine about the Nepal Army's intentions. As long as the government does not tamper with the army's structure with security sector reforms, they feel the generals will play along. "There is no point messing with the army right now," said a retired Indian Army general, "it remains the bulwark against the Maoists and is the only back-up if everything falls apart."

There has been a change of guard at the Nepal desk of the MEA, and the new occupant has just returned from a fam tour of Kathmandu. Although India looms large in Kathmandu. Here, Nepal is overshadowed by some global crisis or other and this week it is the fallout from the India-US nuclear deal.

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(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)


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