Saturday, October 29, 2011

Nepal: Success in India, Trouble in Nepal

By Shastri Ramachandaran*
Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

NEW DELHI (IDN) - "Baburam Bhattarai's visit to India is a big success. There's bound to be big trouble when he gets back to Nepal," a diplomat said of the four-day visit of Nepal's second Maoist prime minister, concluded on October 23.

Nepali prime ministers, even those painted as 'anti-Indian', have always had the benefit of "successful visits" to India. Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai's mission was no exception. The problem begins when they return home.

The more favourable impact a Nepali prime minister makes in India, greater the protests and recriminations at home.

Bhattarai is no stranger to India and the capital's political, academic, social, diplomatic and media circles. The long lines of guests to greet him at every one of his engagements in New Delhi – including the interaction with leaders of business and industry – testify to his gaining popularity, and in new circles. Those keen to strengthen bonds, which have weakened with the passing of a political generation on both sides, see in Bhattarai a friend who can discard his ideological blinkers.

This rapport is as much cause as it is consequence of the trust element being restored to India-Nepal relations in a big way. There is a new depth to the trust, and signs are that it would grow on both sides.

This is evident from the free and frank exchanges during Bhattarai's visit, calculated to impress that this Nepali prime minister commands New Delhi's trust. Official India was emphatic about its unabashed support to Bhattarai for pushing ahead with the peace process, the draft constitution, integration of Maoist combatants in the Nepalese army and fresh elections under a new statute. Rarely in recent years has India thrown its weight so fully behind a Nepalese prime minister.

This level of trust, commitment and support signals the end of a period when bilateral relations had hit a low point – and for a variety of reasons. The Maoists attributed the stagnation to the Indian government's resolve to keep the Maoists out of elected office though they had emerged as the single largest party in parliament.

On its part, New Delhi found that despite its role in banding together all the parties, mainstreaming the Maoists and enabling an accord to initiate the peace process, the UCPN failed to keep its end of the bargain. It continued to foment anti-India sentiments and began leaning towards China. As prime minister, Maoist supremo Prachanda did little to address Indian concerns, which only worsened the situation.

Even now, there are vocal Maoist factions stridently opposed to any agreement with 'hegemonic' India. However, the Maoist leadership, including Prachanda, has now realised that without India's backing to its peace process and path to democracy, there can be no economic development, foreign investments or international support. If India does not invest in Nepal, there is little likelihood of investments from the advanced industrial economies.

It is against this political backdrop that the Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement signed during Bhattarai's visit needs to be seen. As the high point of the Bhattarai visit, it has drawn the ire of his detractors at home and is virulently opposed by Maoist factions.

Under BIPPA, Indian business ventures would be paid compensation – on par with local entities – if they are targeted during riots or political violence. The agreement should act as a check on rampaging Maoist cadres, especially the Young Communist League, who vent their 'nationalist' fury by wrecking Indian commercial ventures.

Although BIPPA has come under fire from most political parties as being against Nepal's 'national interest', the Nepali Congress Party has resoundingly endorsed it. Prachanda, as the popular leader with the largest following, has no choice but to back BIPPA and Bhattarai, in his own political interests.

India has agreed to provide $250 million in credit for developing Nepal's infrastructure. Bhattarai had actually asked for a fourth of this amount. New Delhi's 'generosity' is intended to free India-Nepal relations from political nettles and ground it in economic realities that make Nepal an attractive investment destination for countries other than China also.

The message is that India likes doing business with Bhattarai. Economic goodies may flow freely when political prerequisites like the peace process and draft constitution are delivered without further delay.

Nepal's economic partnership with India may well decide Bhattarai’s political triumph.

*The author, an independent political and foreign affairs commentator based in New Delhi, has been writing on developments in Nepal for over 20 years. He is co-editor of the book 'State of Nepal'. This article first appeared in DNA. [IDN-InDepthNews - October 28, 2011]

Picture: Nepal Prime Minister Bhattarai shakes hand with Indian counterpart Singh