Stirrings in the wok of conspiraciesThe visits and manoeuvres of several high profile figures from India and China should not be taken lightly.
Celebrations of autumnal festivals were comparatively subdued this year due to the Covid-19 scare. Fewer people travelled to their ancestral village for Dashain festivities. Since jobs have been lost and incomes have been reduced, Tihar lights glowed less bright. Chhath turned into a private affair as devotees used makeshift ponds on their front yards or rooftops for the veneration of the sun. For the political honchos, however, it was bickering as usual.
On the diplomatic front, November turned out to be a month of intense engagements. The RAW chief Samant Kumar Goel set the tone with his much-publicised visit. Spooks usually move in mufti and hold secret rendezvous. The New Delhi’s top spy flew into Kathmandu in an Indian Air Force aircraft with a team of professionals and held a meeting with the Supremo of the ruling dispensation.
The Indian Army chief MM Naravane was the next high-profile visitor from New Delhi to arrive with much fanfare. Besides receiving the honorary rank of General of the Nepal Army from President Bidya Devi Bhandari and holding a meeting with his Nepali counterpart Gen Purna Chandra Thapa, he also called on the Prime Minister KP Oli and managed to squeeze in excursions to the Everest Base Camp and the Pashupatinath temple.
Regular flights between Kathmandu and New Delhi continue to be suspended, but that doesn’t seem to have affected high-level movements between the two capitals. It was quite natural for the Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi to sit up and take notice. A day before the controversial meeting of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP), she held a long tête-à-tête with Supremo Sharma Oli late in the evening.
Apart from posing for pictures and posting them on social media, Ambassador Yanqi speaks Urdu, a language of nuanced meanings that share several words with Nepali, and is reputed to be an adroit persuader. Earlier this year, her urging saved the government from collapsing due to intraparty squabbles.
Ambassador Yanqi’s concerns are perhaps justifiable. Circumstantial evidence shows that the Chinese have a huge stake in the continuation of the post-2015 political order in Nepal. It may not have been behind the design of the 16-point conspiracy, but keeping Nepali Congress and the ruling party on the same page serves the interests of the world’s second most powerful country best. Protection of strategic investments and promotion of tactical assets are high on her priority list.
Along with bravery of Gurkhas, the majesty of Mt Everest and the piety of Lord Buddha, the perennially insecure group of pretentious nationalists now have one more thing to be proud of—Nepal has overtaken Vietnam and become the country with second-highest per capita consumption of instant noodles after South Korea! Koreans and Vietnamese eat instant noodles because they are too busy to cook local delicacies; Nepalis do so because they are too lazy to mince meat or slice vegetables to steam Momos.
It’s possible that spymaster Goyal was received at Baluwatar with a plate of aloo tama noodles to tickle his mind. Gen Naravane may have been served a bowl of chicken noodle soup to warm his heart. Ambassador Yanqi has acclimatised quite well and may have been happy with a plateful of vegetable noodles cooked with oodles of sliced onion, shredded cabbage and grated carrots.
Having served in Bangkok as his country's resident envoy, the Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla may have developed a taste for sharp bowls of Thai noodles. Perhaps chefs of Baluwatar have already begun to experiment with the addition of timmur and tomatoes to Tom Yum paste to give the soup a Nepali twist for a prominent community member from Sikkim when he comes visiting. President of Nepali Congress Sher Bahadur Deuba also must love the Baluwatar broth.
China’s State Councillor and Defence Minister Gen Wei Fenghe has been a nuclear chief and a missile force commander and would probably enjoy the simplicity of the stir-fried noodles with sautéed Chinese sausages as a quick meal during his short visit scheduled for the November-end. The head-chef of Baluwatar must be wondering what to suggest for the menu when a visitor from the Indo-Pacific Command at Hawaii is almost sure to arrive as the next prominent guest.
Entertaining high-profile guests to win friends and influence people has been the established tradition of Kathmandu since the Ranas perfected the art of ‘Shikar Diplomacy’ and used it to their advantage. The Shahs diversified into mountaineering, trekking and jungle safari diplomacy and reaped its benefits.
Since the employment of pilgrimage policy seems to offer little advantage, culinary diplomacy perhaps deserves a try. After all, it’s an old saw that the way to a person’s heart passes through the palate. In any case, when giants are competing with each other, the best course for a relatively weaker partner is to fetch them food and drinks.
Despite its name, Gobi Manchurian is an Indian-Chinese dish with very little connection to Manchuria except for its name. The best part about this fusion cuisine is that its gravy goes equally well with pan-fried noodles and Dum Pukht biryani. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi loves Khichdi and he made a hash of India’s Nepal policy by relying a little too much on the Hindutva lobby in New Delhi.
The Indian strategy of appeasing the permanent establishment of Nepal in 2014 at the cost of alienating progressive forces began to backfire badly within a few months. Beijing and Washington moved quickly to fill the vacuum. A few years of being sidelined seems to have chastened the votaries of Hindu Rashtra theory. But it may be too late to make amends.
The ruling dispensation in Kathmandu is too closely tied in material and ideological terms with Beijing to care much about concerns of New Delhi. Ambassador Yanqi has intensified her activities, wolf-warrior style, to counter fresh Indian overtures.
The Goyal gambit appears to have started a new diplomatic duel between Nepal’s northern and southern neighbours in Kathmandu. A seasoned security analyst reasoned that the goat-tailed map that Supremo Sharma Oli adopted through a constitutional amendment may have prompted the Hindutva lobby handover the Nepal charge to intelligence agencies.
Perhaps primacy of sleuths in fresh negotiations partly explains New Delhi’s deafening silence over the cartographic controversy despite having what a redoubtable researcher described in private communication as ‘untenable evidence according to contemporaneous historical sources’ of continuous possession. Sam Cowan shows as much in his recently published scholarly piece.
The Goyal move remains a matter of speculation. It’s extremely unlikely that he came on a much-publicised trip to discuss India-Nepal relations, share information about US-China rivalry in the Indian Ocean or strengthen Supremo Sharma Oli’s position by disclosing secret information about his political rivals.
That leaves only one possibility: the super sleuth made an offer Oli would find hard to resist. Having as many informants in Nepal, if not more, as Indians do, the Chinese probably got an inkling and have lost no time in making their moves.
The State Councillor and Defence Minister Wei is too high in the Chinese hierarchy to take his sudden dash to Kathmandu too lightly. Foreign Secretary Shringla is no pushover either. Supremo Sharma Oli can either make noodles or stand in the middle with raised hands.