Geopolitical tectonics

Nepal is being squeezed by the collision of the Indian, Chinese and American plates.

Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal with Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra during a meeting in Kathmandu on Monday. Photo: RSS

In the same week that Maoist chieftain and Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal declared 13 February ‘People’s War Day’, he will take the salute at Tundikhel on Nepal Army Day on Saturday, 18 February.

It is one of the successes of Nepal’s peace process that the two militaries that clashed during the second half of the Maoist conflict from 2001-2006 have now buried the hatchet. More than 1,500 former Maoist guerrillas were inducted into the Nepal Army, one of the few instances in recent history that warring sides have come together so effectively.

However, this reconciliation has come at a cost. Tens of thousands of conflict survivors, victims of torture, those maimed for life, and relatives of civilians murdered or disappeared still have no closure.

It is no coincidence that the Nepal Army Day military parade and fusillade has historically been timed for Shivaratri, when tens of thousands of Indian pilgrims throng to Kathmandu. Nepal’s rulers have historically used this occasion as an opportunity to wage psywar, and let Indians take back with them stories of Gorkha military might.

Then in October, the Nepal Army has another show of force on Tundikhel at Phulpati — traditionally the time Tibetans would be in town to barter mountain goats and wool during the Dasain festival. They were supposed to be so awed by the warlike Gorkha Kingdom, that they would spread the word when they returned to Lhasa.

For the past half-century or so, there has been less need for Nepal to put the fear of god on visitors from the neighbourhood. The Tundikhel military display during the Panchayat was directed more at Nepalis themselves, with the not so subtle message to behave themselves.

A fly past by six transport helicopters, all different models and pre-World War I brass cannons firing blanks, are not likely to impress the Defence Attaches of our northern and southern neighbours — especially since Nepali nationals fight in one army against the other. Why the Nepal Army continues to conduct this wasteful and utterly futile exercise twice a year is unfathomable.

Nepal was always squeezed in the geopolitical fault line between India and China. But now with intensifying Sino-US rivalry, the country is not just a yam between two boulders, but three. And to update Prithvi Narayan Shah’s analogy, the tuber has gone all squishy with political decay.

The three powers appear worried about Nepal’s wobbly politics, which is why we are witnessing increased frequency of diplomatic comings and goings. Indian Foreign Secretary and former ambassador to Nepal, Vinay Mohan Kwatra, air dashed to Kathmandu this week, the visit overlapping with the arrival of US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Afreen Akhter.

Akhter herself was preceded by USAID Administrator Samantha Power and US Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland. Power announced a $58.5 million grant (“subject to availability”, what does that even mean?) to shore up Nepal’s democracy, civil society and free press.

And the Chinese are coming in March, with a slew of visits by senior officials to make up for a two-year Covid hiatus. Details about the visits are sparse, but it can only mean that the Sino-US Cold War is entering a new freeze.

New Delhi’s tacit policy towards Nepal has reportedly been to maintain ‘controlled instability’, and if true, it seems to be getting its wish. Insiders say Kwatra was mainly interested in the condition of the coalition and the election of president on 9 March.

Beijing has never hidden its effort to unite Nepal’s Communist parties. And Washington’s strategy is exactly the opposite: to turn the Maoists and UML away from China, and prevent them from getting together.

In this new Great Game, the West is willing to overlook India’s rulers systematically muzzling the media and persecuting religious minorities. Interestingly, the raid on the BBC offices in New Delhi and Mumbai on Tuesday happened on the day Air India announced it was buying 470 Airbus and Boeing aircraft — one of the biggest orders in aviation history.

The US and European governments do not react to anti-Western verbal vitriol spouted in international fora by Indian Foreign Minister S Jaisankhar. And there is enigmatic silence about India’s dealings with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, even as New Delhi prepares to host the G20 summit in September.

The New York Times has belatedly woken up to what is happening in India with an editorial on 14 February that said in part: ‘… American and European leaders should remember that it is only as a democracy, with a free and vibrant press, that India can fulfil its global role.’

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