SOUTH ASIA: INDIA - NEPAL
Prachanda tried hard to win across the board political acceptability. So he hugged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He met Sonia Gandhi, Chairperson of the ruling United Progressive Alliance and President of the Congress Party. He invited a vocal critic of the Nepali Maoists, L.K. Advani, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to complete his Ayodhya journey in Janakpur and Pashupati in Nepal and told him the Hindu essence of Nepal cannot be altered. He spent an hour with BJP’s President, Rajnath Singh, to tell him that they had no links with the Indian Naxalites (Left Wing extremists). And he met old friends Sitaram Yechury and Prakash Karat of the Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPI-M), keeping the links alive even though the Left is no longer a part of the ruling dispensation at New Delhi.
But it was a lunch at Janata Dal – United (JD-U) President Sharad Yadav's house that made it clear what an image transformation Prachanda and the Maoists have engineered, with a tacit nod from the Indian establishment. From the Congress Party’s Digvijay Singh and Abhishek Manu Singhvi to BJP’s Murli Manohar Joshi, from Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to Mulayam Singh Yadav, from Karat to Somnath Chatterjee, the Indian political elite welcomed the PM. Prachanda responded by saying he had spent eight out of the ten years during the people’s war in India and wanted to strengthen the special relationship.
As at home, Prachanda was a different man to different audiences. Sample some of his soundbites to understand the various roles Prachanda and the Nepali Maoists have been performing to retain their old friends and keep their radical cadre happy, while trying to sound moderate and make newer friends. Whether they are able to balance these interests will determine the future of Nepali politics.
Prachanda donned a free market capitalist avatar when speaking to a gathering of the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII), the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM). Even as his workers blocked work at the Dabur factory in southern Nepal, Prachanda was busy wooing the business elite and making the right noises. "We want investment; we will set up special economic zones; I want mega hydro power projects, not small and petty ones."
Speaking to Delhi’s foreign policy elite at the India International Centre, he declared, "Due to our historical, cultural ties and traditional economic dependence, our special relationship with India will continue. We want to improve ties with China but these relations cannot be compared." He thanked the Indian establishment for its help from the 12 point agreement and described the peace process as the collective responsibility of the two countries.
But then, Prachanda returned to his old radical self when speaking behind closed doors at the Nepal Embassy to a gathering of the Indian radical left: "We do not accept parliamentary democracy. Our main enemy now is comprador bourgeoisie and the remnants of feudalism. Foreign forces have been meddling in Nepal since the 12 point agreement. The revolution is not yet over."
However, while one part of the visit focused on Prachanda's personality, his engagement with the ruling elite, and his efforts to win the support of different sections in Delhi, the official meetings remained firmly centered on the bilateral relationship and the peace process in Nepal.
Both sides agreed to 'review, adjust and update' the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship. This is not a drastically new step. For more than a decade, the Nepali side has publicly said they want a new treaty and the Indian side has agreed in principle, but put the onus back on Nepal to come up with specific suggestions. The lack of homework on the Nepali side has always been apparent. The treaty gives ‘national treatment’ to citizens of one country in the other, and this has had enormous advantages for Nepal. There are security-related clauses which Nepal may justifiably want amended. Unlike the past, though, it is more likely that the Nepali side under Maoist leadership will follow up on the agreement to review the treaty.
The signal achievement of the visit has been the reactivating of institutional arrangements between the two sides. Due to the absence of an effective Government in Nepal for several years and the preoccupation of the political class with the internal dynamics at Kathmandu, these bilateral institutions have fallen into a limbo. The two sides agreed to have Foreign Secretary level talks to discuss the entire gamut of outstanding issues; Commerce Secretary level talks to look at the trade and transit arrangements; and Water Resource Minister and Secretary level talks to discuss flood control, irrigation and hydropower. The Home Secretaries will meet to discuss security concerns. India feels Nepal is a conduit for narcotics, fake currency notes, and serves as a base for the activities of the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). Nepal feels that Madhesi militant groups use territory in Bihar to engineer criminal activities in the southern Tarai region bordering India.
In private discussions, the two sides are also understood to have discussed the remaining issues of the peace process, which India has backed and at times micro-managed. The integration of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) cadres with the Nepal Army is the critical task ahead. The Nepal Government has said this will be completed in six months, but most analysts believe it will take longer. The Nepal Army and other parties like the Nepali Congress (NC) have argued that integration of indoctrinated Maoist soldiers will 'politicise' the national Army. The Maoists have pointed out that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement clearly lays down that the cadres will be integrated. India feels that the Army is the only stable institution of state left in Nepal and there should be no drastic changes that affect the chain of command and structure of the institution, and is understood to have conveyed this to the Maoists. At the same time, there is recognition in Delhi and Kathmandu that the Army is demoralised and will have to accept a degree of integration.
To say Prime Minister Prachanda’s visit heralds a new beginning for Nepal-India relations would be succumbing to hyperbole and exaggeration. What the trip did, however, was allow the two sides to know each other better, help the Maoists win greater legitimacy, reaffirm India's commitment and support for the recent political changes and peace process in Nepal, and re-energise the bilateral relationship.
[South Asian Intelligence Review]
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