|Photo: Prashant Jha|
Sharad Yadav is an old hand in Delhi politics. He has swung from being a socialist to a staunch ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and now heads the Janata Dal (United). A minister in the previous BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, his political fortunes on the national stage have faded in recent years. Yadav’s residence on Tughlak Road, in the heart of Delhi, usually bears a rather deserted look. On 16 September, however, the entire road was blocked to traffic. Television crews crowded the entrance to his house; a red carpet was laid out, and top national politicians made their ways inside. The garden area was bustling with preparations for a sumptuous lunch. When the chief guest walked in, all those present immediately stood up.
The Indian political establishment was in full attendance to honour Nepali Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal (nom de guerre: ‘Prachanda’), on his first official visit to India. If Prime Minister Dahal wanted to win the trust of New Delhi’s ruling elite, the lunch at Yadav’s house will rank as a major landmark, for it brought together key Indian political adversaries onto the same stage. Left leader Prakash Karat was sitting with the Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav, who deserted him a month ago when the government was facing a floor test over the India-US nuclear deal. The BJP’s Murli Manohar Joshi, a vehement critic of the Nepali Maoists, sat alongside Congress leader Digvijay Singh. Bihar’s Chief Minister Nitish Kumar flew in from Patna for the event, even as senior minister Sharad Pawar and former Prime Minister I K Gujral listened to Dahal with rapt attention.
Prachanda played to the gallery. Speaking in chaste Hindi, he began by saying, “During the war, I spent eight out of ten years underground here in India. From Delhi to Karnataka to Bengal to Uttarakhand, I have lived here and tried to understand your country. In three years, we have moved from war to government, through democratic elections. Sometimes, I feel this is a dream.” He emphasised that Nepal had a “special relationship” with India, and talked about his plans to take these ties to a new level. In what he called his first “political visit” as prime minister, the former rebel leader’s aim was not so much to re-energise the Nepal-India relationship as to reach out to all sections in New Delhi, allay apprehensions about the Nepali Maoists, portray himself as a moderate, and win across-the-board political acceptability. Over five days, all of his meetings were largely designed to cater to these objectives.
As at home, Prime Minister Dahal knew what to say to which audience. Paradoxes were rife. At a packed gathering of Indian business leaders, the radical communist became a free-market fundamentalist. With BJP leaders, the atheist talked about the Hindu essence of Nepali society. With old friends in the Indian radical left, the head of the Nepali government talked about fighting the bourgeoisie and foreign forces, with the present achievements but a way station to the ‘people’s republic’. Addressing the Indian foreign-policy elite, the ultra-nationalist thanked India for its help, and said that the peace process in Nepal was the “collective responsibility” of both countries.
BJP leader L K Advani spent half an hour with the new prime minister. In what was by all accounts a remarkably warm conversation, Advani told him that the “special, different and unique” relationship between the two countries must continue. Ever the wily charmer, the prime minister described the imperious Advani as his ‘guardian’. The BJP still maintains reservations about Maoist links with the Indian Naxalites, but Prime Minister Dahal had succeeded in establishing a channel of communication with the Indian opposition.
|Photo: Prashant Jha|
|Peace rebel: The Prime minister at Raj Ghat|
The charm offensive seems to have worked for now. At a business gathering organised by Indian chambers of commerce, Prime Minister Dahal spoke about restricting the government’s role to that of mere facilitator, and encouraging investment. “I want big mega-hydropower projects, not small and petty ones,” he said. Indian corporate leaders put forth their concerns about industrial security, labour unrest, uneven tax structures and the smuggling of third-country goods. At the same time, they showed an active interest and willingness to invest in Nepal.
The prime minister had put in a special request to give a public lecture at the prestigious India International Centre. There, he made it a point to allay misgivings in strategic circles in New Delhi about the fact that his first foreign trip had been north, to Beijing. “Our historical and cultural ties, along with traditional economic relations, makes our relationship with India unique,” he said. “We are trying to improve ties with China, but there is no comparison.” But even while trying to make new friends in the ruling elite, the prime minister also remembered his old friends, who had formed his core support base during the ‘people’s war’. He addressed a gathering of the India-Nepal People’s Solidarity Forum, where he said, “The revolution is not yet over. We do not accept parliamentary democracy. Foreign forces have been meddling in Nepal, and all reactionaries and counter-revolutionaries must be defeated.”
What Prime Minister Dahal was hoping to achieve through these meetings was to win greater legitimacy for the Maoists in all-important India. His aim was to build trust with the Indian establishment, not only at the official level, but also with a broader segment of opinion-makers and intelligentsia. With references to his underground life and the ‘people’s war’, he was portraying himself as a revolutionary. By emphasising the decision to enter the democratic framework, he was selling himself as a peacemaker. And by reiterating the special nature of the bilateral relationship, and committing himself not to allow Nepali soil to be used for ‘anti-Indian’ activities, he was reaching out to the conservatives. In return, what he wanted was a firm political commitment, that New Delhi would back the Maoist-led government. The Indian government’s subtle message was that it would work with him, but also that it would be cautious and test the Maoists on their commitments.
The official track
If one part of the trip was centred on Prime Minister Dahal’s personality and his engagement with the political leaders; the other part was more focused on the bilateral relationship. Given the absence of an effective government over the last few years in Nepal and the preoccupation with the peace process, bilateral institutional arrangements have been in limbo. Normal government-to-government interaction has taken a backseat, and has been overshadowed by political developments. This lack assumed greater importance after the embankment breach and disaster on the Kosi River, which could be traced back to non-functional institutional linkages. There had also been rising rhetoric in Nepal about the need to change past treaties.
The achievement of the trip has been to reactivate these bilateral arrangements. There has been an in-principle agreement to “review, adjust and update” the 1950 Indo-Nepali treaty. But as much as Prime Minister Dahal would like to claim this as a ‘revolutionary breakthrough’, it is not necessarily a new development. Nepal has asked for a change in this treaty for more than a decade. India has agreed in principle, but has always thrown the ball back into Kathmandu’s court by asking for specific suggestions. Meanwhile, the Nepali homework has remained incomplete, and it is not clear that the Maoists have done anything more than use the 1950 treaty as an easy propaganda exercise. But with a foreign-secretary-level mechanism now instituted to deal with the issue, it is likely that there will be follow-up this time around.
The commerce secretaries of the two countries will be meeting to review trade-and-transit arrangements. The Nepali side has complained about the rising trade deficit, saying that this is further aggravated by non-tariff barriers on the Indian side, and there have been calls for a whole new trade treaty. The water-resource ministers and secretaries from both sides are now set to meet periodically to discuss issues of flood control, irrigation and hydropower development. And the home secretaries will meet to discuss security issues. India worries that Nepal is being used as a base for activities by Pakistani intelligence services, while Nepal has concerns about crime in the Tarai being engineered by groups based in Bihar.
The Nepali peace process, which India has carefully monitored and backed, was also discussed, and the sensitive issue of the integration of the Maoist soldiers in the national army figured in the agenda. The Indian understanding is that the Nepal Army is the one remaining stable institution of the Nepali state, and that there should be no changes that drastically undermine the chain of command and structure of the military. At the same time, there have to be ways to rehabilitate the combatants, and to ‘integrate’ at least a portion of them.
In the end, before jetting off once again, this time for the meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York, Prime Minister Dahal returned to Kathmandu feeling very pleased with himself. He had managed to secure a degree of support from the politicians and bureaucracy in New Delhi. He told journalists that the trip had gone off better than he had expected. The question now, though, is how the Maoist-led government will be able to use the New Delhi government and the goodwill visit – not in domestic political games, but for Nepal’s growth and stability.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
China, Southasia and India
On May 19 2013, newly appointed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in New Delhi for a series of meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The visit is Keqiang's first outside of China since assuming power in March.
From our archive:
Purna Basnet discusses Chinese engagement in Nepal vis-a-vis security issues in Tibet and broader geo-strategic plans in Southasia (April 2011).
Fatima Chowdury relates the story of Calcutta's Indian Chinese community through the lens of political and economic upheavals in Southasia and China (May 2009).
Simon Long notes the importance of the Sino-Indian relationship for the rest of Southasia (September 2006).
J.N Dixit ruminates on the strategic concerns of the 'Middle Kingdom' in the wake of India's 1998 nuclear tests (June 1998).