Thursday, January 20, 2022

Kathmandu Dilemma or Delhi Paradox ?

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When the controversial book Kathmandu Dilemma: Resetting India-Nepal Ties came into circulation in Nepal few months ago, I briefly talked with a prominent Nepali professor, who, out of my expectation, expressed horror about both the book and its author Ranjit Rae, former ambassador of India to Nepal.

Both the Professor and Rae were invited to attend a public programme some years ago in Nepal’s capital Kathmandu. They chatted during the tea break. The envoy laughed at then Prime Minister KP Oli for being uneducated with only primary education which shocked this urbane intellectual. With due respect to his own nation’s executive head, the Professor angrily asked the ambassador: Is this an official statement of the Indian government or just your personal view?

Their unhappy talk carrying small barbs impressed the present writer. And chapter 4 “The Post-Constitution Fallout” touches this topic saying Oli is “largely self-educated” and “a shrewd politician, possibly the shrewdest in Nepal (Page 86).”

Rae appears a satirist in the book. He depicts former Nepali foreign minister Narayan Kaji Shrestha as “totalitarian” for introducing a code of conduct for foreign diplomats to observe their meetings with Nepali politicians. The code is still valid, struggling for its proper implementation (Page 15). Rae sarcastically discloses to the readers, “Incidentally, Narayan Kaji Shrestha himself always met me alone (Page 156).”

This political satire goes so far that it scorns Nepali leaders in such manner, “The godless prime ministers of the leftist variety have no faith and it doesn’t matter to the people of Nepal” (Page 173).

Besides Nepali leaders, China and the Chinese also are butts of his tendentious mocks. He shares a small story in Chapter 10 “Enter the Dragon”: A senior leader of Nepali Congress passed “a state-of-the-art mobile phone and laptop” gifted by the Chinese to his son, fearing “malware”(Page 195). 

In the last part of this 237-page book “Epilogue” which focuses on way forward to reset India-Nepal ties, Rae still doesn’t forget digging at China as new-rich without soft power. He assumes that with “deep pockets” China tries to ingress into India’s neighbourhood (Page 221).

Not surprisingly, due to Rae's inhospitable and mocking descriptions, it was said that many VVIPs in Kathmandu felt betrayed and became angry. Some words in this book are full of bias and might even be libellous.

Canadian author LM Montgomery once said, “My pen shall heal, not hurt.” But I am afraid that the Indian diplomat’s pen and mouth have already hurt too many people in a non-diplomatic way.

“Don’t waste your time!” A former Nepali ambassador said after getting to know that this writer is seriously reading Rae’s book to write a review.

One of the whimsical suggestions for Nepalese from Rae that my Nepali friends can’t stand is about following the Bhutanese model to resolve the issue of the 1950 India-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship (Page 129), a tender point for Nepal. Dispelling India’s concerns like Bhutan is an unpopular idea that has been floated to rub salt in Nepali people's wounds.

Born in 1957, with more than 30 years of experience in the Indian Foreign Service, Rae is not a diplomatic novice. While writing, he should weigh words and phrases with great care but many of them widely expose the pride and prejudice of the Indian political class notorious for taking Nepal for granted, even bullying it often.

September 23, 2015 is a historic day when India imposed an economic blockade on its northern neighbour that had been suffering from the devastating earthquake, which brought forth a humanitarian crisis for Nepali people.

The tragedy lasted four and a half months and Rae was the ambassador at the time. In his book, however, he uses the phrase “so-called blockade” or “Madhesi blockade”, brushing India’s crude behaviour off lightly.

Rae does not even spare Prithvi Narayan Shah, the founding father of modern Nepal, from his barbs. Rae calls him “the founder of Shah Dynasty” twice. In contrast, he brands BP Koirala “the father of Nepalese democracy” almost every time.

Rae does not even spare Prithvi Narayan Shah, the founding father of modern Nepal, from his barbs. Rae calls him “the founder of Shah Dynasty” twice. In contrast, he brands BP Koirala “the father of Nepalese democracy” almost every time.

The devil is in the details. Why does an Indian diplomat belittle the great king of Nepal while promoting a political leader? Why does he always disdain Panchayat system/rule for being “autocratic” (Page 33) and “party-less” (Page 44)?

I sense, in the name of multiparty democracy, India never wants to give up the dirty British game of “divide and rule” to weaken Nepal so that it can micromanage with a controlled instability. But Rae naturally denies India's overreach.

Thanks to the US expansionism, neighbouring Mexicans say: “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the US.” Nepalis might feel the same about India.

Needless to say, Kathmandu is in a dilemma for the past seven decades after India came out of the colonial period. While Nepal and Britain celebrated their two hundred years of diplomatic relations in 2015, India cast off the yoke of colonialism from British imperialists only for 68 years. But sadly, India has been arrogantly treating Nepal as a younger brother, which is vividly proved by Rae’s book.

As some sober political analysts argue, India is a country of paradox and hard to understand. The paradox of Delhi’s power elite with Rae as a member lies in its illusion of its own strength, superiority complex over its small neighbours, suspicion of its big neighbours, and its misconception about the west.

In the chapter 7 “The Economic Partnership: We Can grow together”, Rae reiterates Nepal’s tragic situation -- “one of the poorest countries”  “widespread poverty.” Ironically, the Global Hunger Index made public this October ranked India at 101 position out of a total 116 countries while Nepal was placed at 76.

In this sense, the sentence “We [India] are and should remain a shining example to our neighbours” (Page 222) will be taken in jest by careful readers. Interestingly, it seems that China is too big to be India’s neighbour.

Brainwashed by the British and hooked with the Americans, the upper class of India has almost lost independent thoughts about India’s global strategies. While discussing about Sino-Indian ties, like the US top diplomat, Rae states, “Though our relationship with China has elements of cooperation, competition and confrontation, the challenge is to ensure that it does not become conflictual" (Page 221).

Rae is a qualified envoy, working very hard for India’s national interest. After retirement, he toiled hard to complete this informative and thoughtful book for the same. To the best of my knowledge, no single Chinese ambassador who worked in Nepal has done a similar job in English till date. This volume serves as an eye-opener for any Chinese who wonders how India works in this Himalayan nation.

To be honest, my personal impression of this Indian diplomat was not bad before studying his first book.

At the same time, Indian policymakers must realize that an India short of ambition is terrible, but an India trying to achieve unrealistic ambition through unreasonable means is disastrous for both India and its neighbours including China.

To be honest, my personal impression of this Indian diplomat was not bad before studying his first book. When he worked as Indian ambassador to Nepal from September 2013 to February 2017, I served as the chief of Xinhua News Agency Kathmandu bureau.

In the programme “Revival of the South-Western Silk Road: Role of trilateral cooperation between China, India and Nepal” held in June 2014 in the capital, Ambassador Rae lauded the idea of reviving the south silk road, praising it as very “fascinating”. He further encouraged scholars to do more detailed cost-benefit analyses.

On that very day, I photographed a rare and precious picture in which three envoys were seated shoulder by shoulder: Nepalese ambassador to China Leela Mani Paudel, Chinese ambassador to Nepal Wu Chuntai with Rae in the middle.

As a pragmatic diplomat, Rae’s support for trilateral cooperation and quadrilateral projects isn’t just a flash in the pan. In the book published this September by Penguin Random House, Rae explores, directly or indirectly, possible ways to make this kind of cross-Himalayan cooperation happen. This kind of discussion from Indian side, though by half a word has precious value in a much more fragmented world being tortured by both the “new cold war” between the US and China and the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic.

Published on 10 December 2021

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