India’s new ambassador to Nepal, Ranjit Rae, has assumed charge at a testing time in the politics of the Himalayan country where Parliamentary elections are due in November.
The fact that Nepalese political leaders, including KP Sitaula, General Secretary of the Nepali Congress, pleaded with External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid during his visit in July to let his predecessor Jayant Prasad continue until the elections is hardly a sign of Rae being less well-regarded than Prasad.
It is a tribute to Prasad, a career diplomat, and his accomplishments during the two years he was posted there that the Nepalese political class enjoys a comfort level with him which was missing for a while before he took charge. Besides, the affinity for Prasad may also be attributed to his father, Bimal Prasad, who had served with distinction as India’s ambassador to Nepal over 25 years ago. Jayant Prasad has done “extremely well”, in the words of a senior diplomat, who is confident that Rae “would surpass expectations”.
Rae is no stranger to Nepal and its turbulent politics. As the Joint, and later Additional, Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Rae was dealing with Nepal at a time of “democratic transition” that was critical to “regime legitimacy”. He is seen as “Nepal-friendly” and respected because he can be firm, if not tough, when the situation calls for it.
Once again, Nepal is in “transition” as it has been since 2006 when the interim Parliament was formed by abolishing the two chambers, and the election of a Constituent Assembly scheduled for 2008. The elected Constituent Assembly in which the Maoists led by Prachanda emerged as the single largest party and led the government failed to deliver a Constitution. Worse, it killed itself by exceeding its term (despite successive extensions) and leaving Nepal in limbo – without a Constitution, Constituent Assembly/Parliament and an elected government.
The institutional vacuum was total with the Chief Justice KR Regmi becoming the executive head of government but holding on to the country’s highest judicial position. In the event, both the government and the Supreme Court were shorn of even a semblance of credibility, and it was only a matter of time before the Election Commission, too, became a handmaiden of the government and the four parties which are propping up Regmi. In short, Nepal has a four-party dictatorship and no Constitution, Parliament or credible constitutional office.
The Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists (UCPN-M) — of which Prachanda is Chairman and Baburam Bhattarai was the last Prime Minister — is the backbone of the government that includes the Nepali Congress (NC) led by Sushil Koirala, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) and parties from the Madhes region.
Regmi’s rule, supported by this “Syndicate of Four”, has left President Ram Baran Yadav powerless and frustrated; and, people have turned cynical about restoration of electoral democracy. The people’s indifference is sought to be exploited with a breakaway faction of Maoists and royalist parties pressing for postponement of the elections.
India, China, the US, the UK and Western powers are all interested that Nepal stays on course to hold the promised elections in November. Although the “international community” would be quick to claim credit when Nepal actually votes, elections being held or put off would be attributed to “Indian influence”. While India is expected to desist from “interference”, it is still expected to ensure outcomes that are the prerogative of Nepal’s ruling elite.
Such an expectation is not new to New Delhi, which would willy-nilly have to steer Nepal’s return to multiparty democracy and “regime legitimacy”.
The author, an independent political and foreign affairs commentator, is co-editor of the book State of Nepal.