Door to Improving Indo- Nepal Ties?
Nepal's Baburam Bhattarai wrapped up a four-day visit to India on Sunday, capping his first foreign trip as Prime Minister by signing three key pacts. The Maoist leader's high-profile tour is widely seen as an attempt to revitalize his country's ties with New Delhi. Though the neighbors have enjoyed decades of friendly relations, their bilateral links have frayed of late, as anti-Indian sentiment bubbled in Nepal and India fretted over the Maoist-led country's blossoming ties to China.
Nepal's Maoists fought a decade-long war against the Nepalese monarchy and went on to form the country's first full-fledged democratic government. Since they took power in 2008, however, the country has been locked in a protracted political crisis. They've struggled to revive the stalled peace process and have yet to pass a new constitution. Jockeying between India and China has only complicated the country's complex domestic political scene.
Prime Minister Bhattarai's first task is to convince New Delhi that his government is committed to multiparty democracy, the conclusion of the peace process and the reintegration of 19,000 former rebels into the Nepali mainstream. India has close ties to the country's two main opposition parties, the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist Leninist, and could help convince them to join the coalition and, eventually, get the peace process back on track.
India may indeed back Bhattarai. Since 2008, New Delhi has watched warily as anti-Indian sentiment took hold next door. They see Bhattarai as a moderate Maoist, a counterweight to the hard-line figures they've opposed. "New Delhi wants to promote and support him as then there is less chance of revival of armed struggle in Nepal," says Nihar Nayak, an expert with the Delhi-based think tank, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. "Bhattarai [passes] a clear message to New Delhi that the Maoists are trying to change themselves from a radical to a moderate group."
He is also trying to ease India's fears on China. In 2008, Nepal's first Maoist Prime Minister, Prachanda, broke tradition — and angered Indian officials — by opting to visit China, not India, on his first foreign trip. "When the Maoists came to power, they had a mandate to bring about changes that they wanted without any kind of breaks being put on them," says K.V. Rajan, former Indian ambassador to Nepal. The Maoists "went headlong in an embrace with China, which completely ended India's special relationship with Nepal." Indeed, during Prachanda's tenure, 12 high-level Chinese delegations, including two military teams, reportedly visited Nepal.
Bhattarai sought to ease Indian minds ahead of his visit. "Nepal is sandwiched between two huge states of India and China. But we are virtually India-locked, as we have an open border on three sides," he wrote in an editorial for the Hindu. "Most of our socio-economic interactions take place with India. Two-thirds of our annual trade is with India, while only 10% is with China." It's a message he reiterated this weekend in New Delhi. When warning of divisive influences, he said India and Nepal share the same destiny and must stay united.
India welcomed Bhattarai, but with a hint of caution. At an official banquet on Friday evening, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, "Nepal is passing through a crucial phase in its quest for peace, stability and multiparty democracy," but noted that there should be no "foreign interference" in the process.
Ultimately, analysts say, it must be Nepal, not India or China, that ends the political stalemate. "India can play a very positive and permanent role to resolve the political deadlock in Nepal," explains the executive director of the Kathmandu-based Institute of Foreign Affairs, Tika Jung Thapa. "But unless Bhattarai has the power within his own party to get these implemented, the significance of his visit will be lost."
Meanwhile, China courting Nepal
Recent security concerns, however, have given India new reasons to reassert itself in Nepal by investing in infrastructure as well as more troops on the border. Security experts say that that jihadist groups in the region exploit the porous border between India and Nepal, and they worry that India's Maoist insurgency may do the same. "That is their biggest concern," says Nayak.
China's main interest in Nepal has always been led by its concerns over Tibet, which has been ruled by China since 1950. Beijing's involvement with Nepal grew much more intense after the March 2008 ethnic Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule, which deeply embarrassed the Beijing government on the eve of its expensive Olympic Games. There are an estimated 20,000 Tibetans living in Nepal but, with China pushing Nepal to tighten its border with Tibet, the number of new refugees reaching Nepal has dropped to about 500 from an annual figure of around 2,500. But it too has increased its focus on economic ties — trade between China and Nepal has quadrupled since 2003. This week, China said it would restart the tourist bus route between the Tibetan capital Lhasa and Nepal's capital Kathmandu. It had suspended the service in 2006.
The apparent jostling for influence is making Nepal's tricky politics even trickier. By far the most difficult issue left unresolved since the 2006 peace talks is the integration of the former Maoist guerrilla fighters into Nepal's army, a conflict that led to Prachanda's resignation as Prime Minister last year. India's military academies have historically been the training ground for Nepal's top officers — the Nepali army chief graduated from the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun — so the Maoists have long claimed, most famously in a fiery speech by Prachanda in December, that India backs the Nepal army and wants to restore the monarchy. Ironically, the influence of India is the one point on which the former King and the Maoist former Prime Minister agree. When Gyanendra was on the throne, he too chafed at any hint of excessive Indian influence. It may be an inevitable dilemma for a small country squeezed between two giants — and one that Nepal has less than three months to resolve.
Thus Finally, an opening with Nepal
The most significant outcome of Nepali Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai's visit to India is the growing trust between the two countries, and between the Indian establishment and his own party, the Unified Communist Part of Nepal (Maoist). The stagnation that marked the bilateral relationship is now broken. New Delhi's policy of trying to keep the Maoists — the legitimately elected biggest party in parliament — out of the power structure over the past two years was counter-productive. It only prolonged the stalemate over constitutional issues, deepened the instability, and generated resentment against India. But there has been a policy course-correction in the last few months. India did well not to try and block the election of Mr. Bhattarai as Prime Minister by using its leverage with the Madhesi parties. The immediate invitation extended to the new leader, the low-key efforts by the new Indian Ambassador in Kathmandu encouraging all sides to be flexible, the new support for the integration of a certain number of Maoist combatants into the Nepal Army, and the atmospherics of the prime ministerial visit show a renewed Indian commitment to playing a constructive role. With a section of the Indian establishment remaining uncomfortable with the emerging rapprochement, Nepal's opposition parties seem to have lobbied with senior members of the Indian cabinet to slow down the engagement with Maoists. Fortunately, this didn't work.
Nepal appears to be on the verge of achieving a breakthrough in its peace and constitutional process. Its political parties are close to an agreement on the issue of the integration of Maoist fighters, which is at the core of the peace process. There is also a power-sharing proposal on the table, with the Maoists saying the Nepali Congress president, Sushil Koirala, can be the next Prime Minister who will lead the country into elections after promulgation of the new constitution. India must play a supportive role, as it did in 2005 when the 12-point agreement was forged. It should continue supporting the present government in its quest to wrap up the political transition, use its leverage with the Nepali Congress to get it to cooperate on the peace process, and nudge the Maoists to implement past commitments. Prime Minister Bhattarai and the Maoists took a political risk in signing the Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement — his rivals back home have dubbed it an ‘anti-national' deal — because they want to tell India that they can deliver on contentious issues, including the security of Indian investment. It is vital that India recognises these changing political realities in Nepal, and plays the role of a constructive facilitator once again.