An interview with K V Rajan and Atul K Thakur

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K V Rajan is a former Ambassador to Nepal, retired as Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. During nearly forty years of diplomatic service, he was entrusted with diverse responsibilities which covered political, economic, cultural, academic, media-related and multilateral work and developed intimate knowledge about most countries and major international institutions in the world. His diplomatic service outside India included France, USA, Zambia (with concurrent accreditation to Botswana, Angola, Namibia and South Africa and (then) Rhodesia, Algeria, UK and Nepal. As India’s longest serving Ambassador to Nepal to date (1995 to 2000), and subsequently in various other capacities, he has unmatched personal experience of Nepal and understanding of various aspects of India-Nepal Relations.

Rajan is a frequent speaker in India and abroad on international issues. He is the author of several articles on Foreign Policy issues for the leading publications, and Editor of an anthology of essays by distinguished senior former Ambassadors, The Ambassadors Club (HarperCollins).

Atul K Thakur is a Policy Professional, Columnist and Writer with specialisation in the interface of economics and policy. His interest in writing and research is quite diverse and reaches to the areas of Public Policy & Affairs, Macroeconomic Policies, International Affairs and Sustainability, with special focus on South Asia. He is an alumnus, inter alia, of Banaras Hindu University and Pondicherry University and has worked across the sectors, spanning Public Policy & Affairs, Management Consultancy, Think Tank, Journalism; Publishing and Media. As an author/editor, India Now and in Transition (Niyogi Books, 2017) is his second and widely acclaimed book. In 2013, he edited India since 1947: Looking Back at a Modern Nation (Niyogi Books), a major non-fiction book on modern India. In 2021, he curated and edited (with Nepal’s Former Finance Minister Mr Madhukar SJB Rana), An Alternative Development Paradigm for Nepal (Vajra, Kathmandu).

This interview with K V Rajan and Atul K Thakur was conducted by the editorial board of The Mero Tribune.

How did you both think of writing the newly launched book, “Kathmandu Chronicle: Reclaiming India-Nepal Relations”?

Nepal’s history in recent decades has been marked by tumultuous events and transformations, and its relations with India by sharp fluctuations. Many books on both subjects have been written by scholars and foreign policy practitioners, Nepalese as well as Indian. Yet, too many unanswered questions remain, about the how’s and why’s of the past, the depth and challenges of present trends, and prospects for the future, in an increasingly uncertain post-COVID world. 

We felt that a joint work—by one intimately involved with Nepal for several years during his diplomatic service as well as after retirement, together with a long time Nepal observer—could help address this gap by combining first hand field experience, assessments and interactions with independent and objective research. In that sense, this is not only a new book but a new approach to an important and complicated subject. 

What is your new book ‘Kathmandu Chronicle’ about?

The book ‘Kathmandu Chronicle: Reclaiming India-Nepal Relations,’ based on first person experience, deep research, analysis and introspection, and new resource materials, facilitates understanding of how an India with credible aspirations to becoming a major world player and a transformed Nepal in a transforming world order could revisit their ties to ensure a steady upward trajectory. 

Structurally, the book “Kathmandu Chronicle: Himalayan Transitions & India-Nepal Relations has three broad sections.

The first section “Diplomatic Gleanings: A First Person Account (By K V Rajan)” presents the lead author’s personal experiences and insights from his long tenure as India’s Ambassador to Nepal as well as subsequent years as Secretary, MEA, Adviser to the Minister and involvement in various civil society initiatives which took him frequently to Nepal. It includes first person accounts, perspectives based on one-to-one exchanges with key leaders and functionaries in India as well as in Nepal. Beyond the usual monarchy story, this comes with vital revelations with deep background on the highly unfortunate palace massacre in 2001 and eventual end of monarchy in Nepal.

The readers may find it interesting to get an overview of relations post-Indian Independence: ‘Tryst with Kings (Tribhuvan, Mahendra, Birendra); First Stirrings of Democracy and India‘s role in Different Phases; Background to Sharp Fluctuations in the Graph of India-Nepal Ties; The Tensions and Dramatic Improvement in Ties; The Gyanendra Years, Popular Revolt Against his Attempts to Throttle Democracy; Emergence of the Maoists as a Major Threat to Nepal and India; Birth of the Secular Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal; India‘s Role and Implications of Institutional Transformation of Nepal.’

The second section “Transitions of the Himalayan Kind (By K V Rajan & Atul K Thakur)” is a detailed account on the most decisive factors that changed the courses of history in Nepal: Transitions at Top of the World: Nepal’s Search for Democracy; The Maoist Phenomenon: Rise, Mainstreaming and Decline; The China FactorWith developmental aspirations and strong urge to get democracy functions, the democratic struggles during the Panchayat system and before the 1990 movement—and almost a decade old Maoist revolution transformed Nepal and made sure not to come full circle.

The final section “Repurposing India-Nepal Relations (By K V Rajan & Atul K Thakur)” is deeply contextual and it prominently covers a diverse set of matters that merit prioritization: ‘India-Nepal Relations: Irritants that Refuse to Go Away’ (1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship; A Border Dispute with Guaranteed Longevity); ‘Crucial Influencers of Bilateral Ties’ (Water; Trade; Dialogues of the Deaf; Army-to-Army Ties: Special But Not Always So; Where Does Madhesh Stand Now?); The Case for an Alternative Development Paradigm for Nepal; Beyond Borders: Regional and Sub-Regional Cooperation; Reimagining India-Nepal Relations.

Why India–Nepal relationship repeatedly experience setbacks?

Despite their much-vaunted ‘special relationship’ (a term rarely used by Nepal in recent times), India-Nepal ties have repeatedly experienced setbacks, some of them with long-term implications. Nepal itself has undergone several significant transformations since India’s independence, with many of which India—not coincidentally—has been intimately involved. What are the real causes of regular anti-Indian eruptions in Nepal, and why is there so much mutual distrust and suspicion despite India’s best intentions? 

Why has anti-Indian sentiments, which until fairly recently, was limited to a few sections of Kathmandu Valley intellectuals, apparently spread across large chunks of the population, urban and rural, hill and valley, rich and poor? Did the 10 year long Maoist insurgency, one of whose core demands was to end special  relations with India, have something to do with this and what should India do about it?

Watching the frequent fluctuations in the graphs of India’s relations with its neighbors, South Asian scholars often pose the question, “Is India losing South Asia?” on the other hand, Indian diplomats with deep knowledge of India’s repeated efforts to improve relations with its neighbors usually pose the question the other way around, “Is South Asia losing India?”

China’s surging footprint in the region, and the penchant for India’s neighbors to frequently encourage it is a subject of continuing debate. There is only one way to address this reality, and that is for India to get its act together, adjust its diplomatic functioning style, policies and priorities, create an ambiance of mutual trust, expand the thrust of ‘Atmanirbharta’ to carve in at least selected close neighbors including Nepal, and give them their rightful place as co-passengers on the journey towards speedy inclusive development. Neighborhood First needs to be perceived by our neighbors as a living day-to-day Indian foreign policy priority and not just a slogan.

But if there is one country with which India needs to make a fresh beginning, it is Nepal. It is in that hope that this book has been written. The book makes a sincere and honest effort to add to the literature on the subject through original research, interpretations and analyses.

What are India’s concerns over China’s growing influence in Nepal?

The China factor is now very prominent in Nepal, for many reasons. Nepalese political leaders have traditionally found it useful to exploit India’s China concerns to extract benefits from India; it usually also boosts their nationalist credentials at home vis-à-vis their opponents. China itself openly flaunts its political and economic clout, unfortunately not for a constructive aim of enhancing its ties with the northern neighbor but to undermine Indian influence. India has no option but to counter this strategic challenge by all means at its disposal–political, economic, diplomatic, cultural, people to people linkages, etc.

The Chinese have exposed themselves to Nepal’s political elite through fairly clumsy attempts at intervention in internal politics which have backfired on them. Even on the economic side, they are not finding it as easy as before to impress Nepalese businessmen, bureaucrats or politicians. Significantly, even seven years after BRI was launched and Nepal subscribed to it, not a single project has been negotiated by successive Kathmandu governments, each of which has found reasons to postpone decisions on Chinese terms.

Yet there is no reason for complacency. Neutralizing India’s natural influence in its neighborhood is clearly a high Chinese priority, and its actions in every neighboring  nation, (most recently  Maldives) are confirmation, if confirmation was needed, that the String of Pearls concern is not in the realm of fanciful imagery but a strategic challenge to the India growth  story.

Among others, the book sheds light on historical moments like the IC 814 hijacking and the Palace Massacre. Can you point out some pivotal points covered in the book?

This is an account of personal experiences and interactions as India’s Ambassador to Nepal and thereafter, during an eventful period when Nepal appeared to be making notable progress as constitutional monarchy and multi-party democracy, only to be overtaken by major upheavals including the Maoist insurgency launched in February, 1996; the hijacking of IC 814 (Indian Airlines Flight 814: Kathmandu-New Delhi) shortly after take-off  from Kathmandu on 24 December  1999; the Palace Massacre of June 1, 2001 which wiped out King Birendra and his entire family; the 1 February 2005 coup by King Gyanendra against democracy; the mainstreaming of the Maoists; the promulgation of a controversial constitution; and the apparently unending transition to a Federal Democratic  Republic; with flashbacks and futuristic reflections on the fascinating story of India-Nepal relations. It is a story of repetitive patterns, avoidable misunderstandings, missed opportunities, mixed signals, poignant realities, deep mistrusts and unlimited hope. A story which deserves deep analysis and introspection as its lessons are so relevant if there is to be a better future. 

How do you both see Nepal’s democratic journey, from monarchy to a federal republic?

Nepal registered several significant turning points in a relatively short span of time–among them achievement, at last, of full-fledged multi-party democracy after two popular upheavals and not a little help from across the southern border; a peaceful negotiated end to ten years of violent Maoist insurgency and the mainstreaming of Maoists into the democratic polity; adoption of a Constitution (albeit somewhat imperfect and hastily rushed through); a peaceful and in the end dignified exit of the institution of monarchy; the assertion of a new identity  as a secular federal  democratic republic. High expectations aroused of a ‘New Nepal’. 

These expectations may not have been fulfilled. But India will go the extra mile in strengthening Nepal in every way possible in enabling Nepal to meet its multifaceted challenges.

How can the relations between Nepal-India be strengthened? 

Both sides need to introspect and learn from the past, make necessary course corrections, take fuller advantage of their unique commonalities as well as complementarities. Misperceptions need to be addressed before they begin to distort relations and erode mutual trust, differences need to be discussed honestly and bridged before they become irritants. 

 One understanding that hopefully will flow out of this study is that realpolitikbargaining style diplomacy of the transactional kind and knee-jerk responses need not and cannot be the basis for relations between two countries such as India and Nepal, with such unique and deep historical, familial, religious, cultural, geographical and economic ties. 

Both  at the level of government as well as civil society, Nepal and India urgently need to come to terms with the past, understand comprehensively and objectively the unique challenges and opportunities offered by the present, and to ‘repurpose’ their relationship if it is to achieve its exceptional potential in the coming years. Both countries owe it to their peoples to free the relationship from political vicissitudes as well as the negative legacies of the past. Concepts of national interest and mutual security need to be relevant to the world of today and tomorrow. Only mutual empathy, as either country strives to overcome its major challenges, can transform the relationship into a truly special one besides serving the developmental aspirations.



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