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Prachanda’s Visit to India: Beginning of a New Dawn

Captain Alok Bansal was Member, Navy at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • October 08, 2008

    No other recent visit to India has been so eagerly awaited as that of Pushpa Kumar Dahal, alias Prachanda, the Maoist revolutionary turned democrat and Prime Minister of ‘New Nepal’. His party received a thumping mandate from the electorate in the last elections and but for the fact that 50 per cent of the seats were to be filled up by proportional representation, it could have easily crossed the half way mark in the constituent assembly. Thus, under the existing electoral procedure, the Maoists were forced to bank on other political parties to form a government. The process took almost four months after the elections and the Maoists had to join ranks with the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist), Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) and a few other minor political parties, that too after threatening to sit in opposition in the wake of the defeats inflicted by a conglomeration of opposition parties on Maoist candidates in the contests for the posts of President, Vice President and Speaker of the Constituent Assembly.

    Ever since the establishment of the new government, there has been a vicious anti-India propaganda going on in the Nepalese media. Royalists, licking their wounds since the peaceful expulsion of King Gyanendra from Narayanhati Palace, started an anti-India campaign to put pressure on the new government. This propaganda that India was guiding the policies of the new Nepalese government received a fillip when President Dr. Ram Baran Yadav, a madhesi from the Nepali Congress, declined to visit Beijing for the inaugural ceremony of the Olympics, after having accepted the invitation initially. Anti-India sentiments received a further boost when Vice President Justice Parmanand Jha, a madhesi from MJF, took his oath of office in Hindi, a language which the madhesis have been propagating as their link language for inclusion as one of the official languages of ‘New Nepal’. This inflamed the ‘Kathmandu elite’, which perceived it as Indianisation of Nepal. The bursting of the barrage on River Kosi in Nepal and the consequent inundation further aggravated anti-India feelings.

    In order to assuage the anti-India forces and to give an impression that the government is not bowing to Indian pressure, Prachanda visited Beijing for the closing ceremony of the Olympics, a significant departure from the past when all Nepalese politicians visited New Delhi on their first overseas trip after assuming office. The China card has often been used by anti-India forces, but the geographical realities have brought in the realisation that China can never be a substitute for India as far as Nepal is concerned. In the initial days of the Maoist agitation, China had strongly supported the monarchy and had criticised the Maoists for tainting Mao’s name. However, after the success of the popular movement against the monarchy, the Chinese started establishing links with the Maoists and after the elections have managed to win the goodwill of the Maoist leadership in Nepal. An increased Chinese presence in Nepal poses a long-term threat to India and its interests in Nepal.

    It was against the backdrop of rising anti-India demonstrations in Kathmandu and castigation of the Indo-Nepal Treaty of Trade and Transit signed in 1950 as unfairly biased in favour of India, that Prachanda undertook his visit to New Delhi. The anti-India lobby in Nepal has been agitating for the revision of the 1950 treaty and has been apportioning blame on the damaged barrage on Kosi built by India for the loss of life and property in Nepal. They also find fault with various hydro-electric projects negotiated by India with Nepal. On the other hand, in India, feudalistic elements within the establishment, which had hitherto been close to the monarchy, were projecting the Maoists as demons who were ready to paint the while of South Asia red. However, the visit cleared the pall of uncertainty and all of Prachanda’s statements in India were conciliatory. He talked of shared cultural traditions, complementarities of geography and economy and the need for bilateral cooperation based on fundamental principles of International Relations, mutual trust and benefit.

    During the visit, he also talked about water resources and Nepal’s potential for generating thousands of megawatts of hydro-power. He announced a target of producing 10,000 MW of hydropower within the next ten years, the bulk of which may be exported to India, as the Indian power deficit is expected to rise to 20,000 MW by then. He also talked of the Kosi tragedy and stressed on the need to look for short term and long term solutions to the problems of floods and inundation and emphasised the need to work together in the field of flood control, to create structures that do not cause inundation or catastrophe on either side of the Indo-Nepalese border.

    Prachanda highlighted that Nepal has a unique economic opportunity as it finds itself between the two fastest growing economies of the world. He also thanked India for its enormous support for the socio-economic development of Nepal and expected the relationship between India and Nepal to grow over the years based on the interests of the two people. The joint statement issued during the visit agreed to review the 1950 Peace and Friendship Treaty and to tackle common problems like floods and border crimes jointly.

    The visit naturally generated a lot of euphoria about the future of a ‘New Nepal’ but an interaction with the representatives of various political parties accompanying the Prime Minister indicated that there were still serious differences amongst various political parties including those that are part of the government. Most of these differences related to the creation of a federal Nepal. Madhesi political parties are still insisting on a single province in the entire Terai region, whereas the Maoists are willing to grant federalism but want the Terai to be split into at least three separate provinces. Then there are parties like the Rashtriya Janadhikar Party, which are opposed to the concept of federalism itself and recently exhibited their strength by a successful strike in Kathmandu on this issue. It appears that the Madhesi parties are willing to climb down from their demand of a single Madhes province and may accept the Maoist proposal, but the issue that could really divide the polity is the issue of language. Madhesis want Hindi to be recognised as one of the official languages of Nepal, since according to them more people understand Hindi than Nepali in Nepal. Even the Nepali Congress accepts this demand based on the rationale that if Nepali can be one of the official languages of India, why cannot Hindi be an official language of Nepal? However, the Maoists view Hindi as a foreign language and are ready to consider official language status for Maithili, Avadhi or Bhojpuri, which are dialects of Hindi, but not Hindi. This is a problem that will definitely bog down the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly at some stage.

    However, there are other pressing problems facing ‘New Nepal’, the security sector reforms being the most significant among these. The non-Maoist political parties had agreed to the amalgamation of the Maoist militia with the Nepalese Army, but now want the militia to shed its Maoist ideology before being inducted into the Army and the induction to be restricted only to a small percentage. On top of this, most political parties including the Maoists agree that Nepal needs to prune down its army given that the country cannot afford such a large standing army. A senior Maoist leader who came to New Delhi indicated that all the members of the Maoist Armed militia, who are qualified, will be inducted in the Army, which will subsequently be pruned down gradually. On the question of recruitment of Gorkhas into the Indian Army, he said that it was an anachronism and needed to be stopped but it is not going to be stopped in the near future.

    The other problem facing the government is representation of Madhesis in various organs of the state. Presently, they are conspicuous by their absence in the Army, and their presence in bureaucracy is also miniscule. However, the new government has ‘in principle’ agreed to the induction of Madhesis in the Army and will have to do a fine balancing act to induct them while pruning the overall strength of the Army. Industrialists have been assured by the Maoists that their industries do not face imminent nationalisation, and during his visit Prachanda sought investment in Nepal both from the government as well as the private sector in India.

    Nepal is on the threshold of history and in the process of writing a new constitution. It has come out of a deep morass and if it succeeds in tiding over its problems, it could provide a role model for many conflict-ridden states. During his visit to India, Prime Minister Prachanda exhibited statesmanship and a penchant for taking all sections of society together. The international community has generally welcomed the changes in Nepal and its peaceful transition to a federal republic. The initial actions of the government are indicative of consensual politics and quest for economic growth. However, former royalists and anti-India lobbyists have tried to paint the Prime Minister’s successful visit to India as a sell out, despite Prachanda’s success in getting a commitment from India for the revision of 1950 Treaty as well as US$ 5 million for flood victims in Nepal. But the masses have not really bought their propaganda and have been supportive of the government. It appears that the visit has removed mutual suspicions and could usher in a new phase of bilateral relations, with potential for a mutually beneficial relationship.