Pragmatism and legitimacy mark Prachanda visit

India’s strategic interests lie in getting Prachanda firmly on its side to contain advancing China, if necessary, in alignment with the United States

Published: 05th June 2023 01:54 AM  |   Last Updated: 05th June 2023 01:54 AM   |  A+A-

Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustrations | Soumyadip Sinha)

It was not an enthusiastic response that Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal 'Prachanda' got at home on return from a four-day state visit to India which he claimed to be a ‘historic’ one. Apart from the ceremonial reception at the Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, public response was either muted or critically hostile: what he got from Delhi was far less than what he gave.

India’s refusal to show any flexibility on Nepal’s demand for additional air space may cause a waste of 60 billion rupees, some of which was borrowed from China’s Axim Bank for constructing two new international airports at Pokhara and Bhairahawa. The only significant agreement this time was Nepal awarding a contract for the development of 679 MW lower Arun and 480 MW Phukot Karnali hydropower projects to Indian public undertakings. There was no discussion on border disputes which, in the past, have brought the bilateral relations to their lowest.

But Prachanda has a reason to hype the success of his visit beyond reality, which also helps India, especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to project it as another success in India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. Prachanda is struggling hard for his political survival at the fag end of his political career, and India’s appreciation of that largely matters. India’s mediatory role in the 2005-06 peace process brought Maoists and democratic forces to a common platform in Nepal against the monarchy. The decade-long insurgency led by Prachanda ended with Maoists coming to peace and adopting the democratic process, with the rebels instantly occupying centre stage in the power structure in Nepal. It also led to the sudden exit of the monarchy, then a 240-year-old central and apex institution in the country. Its exit also led to the world’s only Hindu kingdom transforming into a secular republic, for which no referendum or public opinion was conducted.

Political parties, especially the ones associated with the 2006 changes, are becoming unpopular largely for poor delivery but more for transparent corruption. Half a dozen mega scams with an equal number of present and past PMs face charges with people in organised and aggressive ways demanding that they should be probed and jailed. The Nepali Congress, the biggest party in Parliament and ruling coalition partner, has many senior leaders currently facing prosecution, allegedly for running a racket that involved sending Nepali citizens as Bhutani refugees to the US.

Prachanda has been avoiding a probe into the alleged embezzlement of billions of rupees during 2008-2012 when over 19,400 Maoist combatants were kept in cantonments under UN supervision and paid 5,000 rupees per month per person. Many leaders, including Prachanda’s one-time deputy, Baburam Bhattarai, had alleged that the amount never went to the combatants but went into the leaders’ pockets.

The latest report of Transparency International certified Nepal as the most corrupt in South Asia. Any opportunity for Prachanda to take a break was, therefore, welcome. Still, when he embarked on a four-day official trip to India, it was mainly to seek favourable support from the neighbour. Prachanda’s party has just 32 members in the 275-member House of Representatives, with the Nepali Congress, the biggest in the House, and a few other smaller parties supporting him.

India’s traditional clout in Nepali politics had visibly declined, with the entry and expansion of China, past 2006, when India and the Western countries supported a radical agenda like republic, ethnicity and secularism. Many Western donors interpret secularism as the right to convert to Christianity.  In retaliation, a scattered but organised movement to restore Nepal’s earlier status as a Hindu kingdom is gaining momentum. Deposed King Gyanendra Shah took some time off from his nationwide tour last month and spent more than a week in Lucknow and met Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. Both have a cultural thread binding them---Yogi presides over the Gorakhnath Peeth. Shah belongs to a royal dynasty, blessed by the legendary founder of the Nath cult, Guru Gorakhnath.

Prachanda has repeatedly reassured BJP and RSS leaders visiting Nepal that India will not find anyone as credible and trustworthy as him in Nepal. India’s strategic interests lie in getting Prachanda firmly on its side to contain advancing China, if necessary, in alignment with the US.

The true significance of Prachanda’s visit this time around was his ability to convince India that he was indeed trustworthy. Just a week before his visit, the Investment Board of Nepal that the PM chairs took the first step towards asking a Chinese firm to pack off from the Tamor Hydro project, which President Xi Jinping had shown keen interest in. He also got the citizenship bill, pending for years, approved by President Ram Chandra Poudel an hour before his departure to India. Delhi had been raising the issue of the bill to protect the right of Indian women to marry in Nepal.

While India and Nepal signed a power agreement with India pledging to buy power generated by hydro companies with over 50 per cent stake, Prachanda agreed in principle that Chinese investment would be discouraged from this or any other major sector. Prachanda did not raise two emotional issues---the row over Nepal’s Kapilavastu and Lumbini being shown as part of ‘Akhanda Bharat’ in a mural in the new Parliament House and the pending resolution of border issues that leaders cutting across party lines have asked him to raise with India. He also chose to appease Modi and BJP by offering puja at Mahakaleshwar in Ujjain, perhaps with a not-so-concealed message that he is not anti-Hindu or a radical secularist in practice.

Nepali leaders have a tradition of undertaking the first official visit to India, a neighbour which shares a border on three sides and with 70 per cent external trade. If Prachanda survives as PM, he may be undertaking a trip to China soon, but all he can do this time is to give the north a fait accompli that he did what he thought was in the best pragmatic interest of Nepal.

Manoj Dahal

Associate Editor with Kathmandu-based

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