The US and India are “seizing the moment” with the 2+2 dialogue between their external affairs and defence ministers in the hope that the growing partnership will outlast a possible change in the US administration next week. But back here in South Asia, a visit by the head of India’s external intelligence agency, R&AW, to meet Prime Minister K.P. Oli of Nepal last week tells us interesting new things.
First things first, the person picked to break the ice with Nepal since the political row over Nepal’s map was the head of Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) — and not a political person. This speaks reams of the foreign policy power structure in New Delhi. Increasingly, it seems as if National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and his secretariat are asserting themselves in India’s neighbourhood, leaving large parts of the rest of the world – the US, for example, and therefore the 2+2 dialogue – to the responsibility of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).
Remember that India’s most difficult foreign policy question, the unsettled border with China, is run by Doval, who is India’s Special Representative on the boundary talks – although, on China’s side, foreign minister Wang Yi is his interlocutor.
India’s flip-flops on Nepal
Interestingly, R&AW seems to have quite a few Nepal specialists. So, along with chief Samant Goel on the Nepal trip was Arun Jain, earlier posted there as an intelligence officer. In the MEA, however, several Nepal hands have moved on. Slowly, Vinay Kwatra, India’s newest ambassador to the Himalayan republic, who knows Modi better than most diplomats having served as his unofficial interpreter in the early years, is getting to know this hugely complex and multi-layered country. He is now believed to be meeting all the players, who his predecessor had pointedly ignored.
It’s not been easy. The last several years have been shaped by one folly or another. First, New Delhi decided to support the Madhesis in their fight towards egalitarianism, which led to the informal blockade of goods, thereby upsetting the Kathmandu elite. When then-Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar visited Nepal at the time, seeking to broadbase the Constitution, he was roundly snubbed, including by the erstwhile pro-India president Ram Baran Yadav. Oli went on to decisively win the elections on an anti-India platform.
Alongside, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) tried to run the Nepal policy, because the country remains a Hindu-majority republic, but it soon burnt its fingers too. After the 2017 election in Nepal, New Delhi swallowed its pride and reached out to Oli – but tilted so much in his direction that it forgot that in a democracy other key players co-exist and play equally important, balancing roles.
So the Nepali Congress – whose early democratic aspirations were forged in the hot plains of India – as well as the Madhesi leaders, who until recently had been the darlings of Delhi, were pretty much ignored. Calls weren’t returned. Old friends first turned indifferent, then hostile. Oli, of course, was not above manipulating New Delhi.
Meanwhile, in the flush of its romance with Donald Trump in the US, roller-coaster ties with China and the race to the bottom with the Pakistan relationship — India, sort of, forgot Nepal. India’s diplomats have become so used to being feted in Western capitals or enjoy its cushy comforts, that prickly nations like Nepal are almost shunned.
That, of course, suited the Chinese just fine. As China’s ambassador Hou Yanqi feted the Kathmandu elite, India stared at the vast abyss of lost ground. And when the Chinese made aggressive moves into Ladakh, Army chief M.M. Naravane responded with an undiplomatic statement of his own.
Why the R&AW chief?
It is in this context of India trying to make amends that the Samant Goel visit to Nepal should be seen. Nevertheless, the question remains: Why was Goel picked to go to Nepal and not a political personality? If Jaishankar was busy with 2+2 and China, couldn’t someone else be sent? There’s an entire Cabinet of options.
The circumstances of Goel’s visit are equally intriguing. The man took an Indian Air Force special aircraft to Kathmandu, an unsual act bound to attract notice. Then there was that splashy, public landing in the broad light of day at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan airport, in full glare of Nepal’s intrepid reporters.
It’s not as if R&AW chiefs have never taken special aircraft to Kathmandu, or that they haven’t met its top political leadership not accompanied by the ambassador – remember, Vinay Kwatra was in Delhi when Goel was in Kathmandu, preparing the Army chief for his own November visit to Kathmandu, where he will be honoured with the rank of General in the Nepal army. When a R&AW chief wants to do anything secretly, let’s be clear, he isn’t leaving a trail of crumbs in his wake.
Of course, the story got leaked. Probably someone wanted the story leaked, so as to send several messages, to Oli, the Nepali political elite and opposition as well as to the foreign policy elite back home in India.
A message to Nepal
The message to Oli is that New Delhi is well aware of his attempts to fan anti-India rhetoric by unilaterally redrawing an international map that expands Nepal’s borders into Indian territory. The message is also that India is not going to accept the move, even if the Chinese fete him or anyone else all the way to Beijing.
Goel’s meeting with Baburam Bhattarai is a second message to Oli – no one should forget that Bhattarai, a former JNU student and avowed Communist, lived incognito in Delhi for many years until the repressive monarchy in Nepal gave way to the Jan Andolan in 2006 and he returned home a victor.
The message to the Indian foreign policy establishment is that NSA Doval is in charge. That PM Modi wants the Nepal relationship fixed, so Doval and his boys are rising to the occasion.
But let’s stop here and smell the coffee. All of the above may read very well in spy thrillers, except for one small fact: India’s very public move of showing the mirror to Oli can backfire. The Nepal PM has given himself several leases of life by successfully playing the anti-India card, but at the same time publicly greeting PM Modi on Independence Day and most recently on Dussehra with a greeting card that did not have the new map printed on it.
If the Samant Goel trip succeeds, then NSA Doval would have pulled off a risky manoeuvre. If not, New Delhi would do well to dwell, as winter closes in, on why it’s losing its neighbourhood. One aggressive neighbour (China) has taken territory, another (Pakistan) continues with its proxy war, a third (Bangladesh) is upset with the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and a fourth (Nepal) is playing the Indian establishment like a tanpura.
Soon, spring will come. Soon, like Bihar, which is next door to Nepal, America will have a new administration. Question is, does India have a plan?
Views are personal.
This article has been updated to correct the news about the R&AW chief meeting Nepal’s opposition leader Baburam Bhattarai.
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