Prachanda in India: PMs will discuss bilateral ties, but Saarc, Pakistan may pop up in discussions

On 4 August, a day after Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda was appointed the ninth Prime Minister of Nepal, Firstpost wrote:

...whether or not he acquiesces (to Indian prime minister Narendra Modi's invitation) and makes India his first foreign destination as prime minister — a gesture that is more symbolic than anything, but significant in terms of shaping perceptions — remains to be seen. So too does the matter of whether or not Prachanda chooses once again to review the 1950 India-Nepal treaty. How he deals with the Madhesis issue will also be a key indicator in predicting the trajectory of India-Nepal relations.

File image of Prachanda. AFP

File image of Nepal prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda. AFP

As it turned out, Prachanda's first foreign destination in his second stint as prime minister is India and that visit begins on Thursday. On his four-day itinerary (15 to 18 September) are a stay at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, a whistlestop visit to Shimla, a trip to the Patanjali Yogpeeth and its industrial units in Haridwar, and of course, a meeting with Narendra Modi. While the meeting of prime ministers will arguably be the most significant and keenly-followed part of the visit, the Shimla leg is equally interesting, albeit for very different reasons.

Prachanda is set to visit the some of the projects (including the 1,500 MW Nathpa Jhakri damn) by Sutlej Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited (SJVNL), which happens to run the Arun-3 (900 MW) project in Nepal. A long-delayed project, Arun-3 lost World Bank funding in 1995 and the project had since been shelved. During Modi's 2014 Nepal visit, however, new plans for the project were finalised, with India and Nepal signing a project development agreement.

According to PTI, Prachanda's delegation for the India visit includes Minister for Foreign Affairs Prakash Sharan Mahat, Minister for Physical Infrastructure and Transport Ramesh Lekhak, lawmakers, senior government officials, mediapersons and representatives of the business community.

The sorts of agreements likely to be signed will be developmental, cultural or educational in nature. After all, it's not as though Modi and Prachanda will sign a defence treaty with China as the target.

So what can we expect?

In a teaser for NDTV's Walk the Talk, Prachanda is seen describing the India-Nepal relationship to Shekhar Gupta as 'very unique', and adding, "Now the time has come to create the atmosphere for understanding and closer relations." He goes on to state that his predecessor KP Oli's 'one-sidedness and ego-centric, self-centric psychology' had a role to play in the deterioration of bilateral ties.

The general perception is that while Prachanda intends to improve relations with India — or at least manage them better than Oli did, he will do so on his own terms. Those last four words are important given the backdrop of Prachanda's relationship with India, as articulated by Hindustan Times: "...of deep discord followed by friendship, of suspicion followed by collaboration, of a sense of betrayal followed by renewed partnership between the two sides."

Public pronouncements like 'there is no connection between my India visit and the matter relating to the Constitutional Amendment' and  that 'no controversial agreement' will be signed with India, back up this sentiment.

However, they need to be examined a little closer.

First, the Constitutional Amendment part. Considering the bitterness of the Madhesi protests, followed by Kathmandu's anger at New Delhi's apparent 'meddling in Nepal's sovereignty' and the subsequent 'economic blockade', a statement like this sends out the message to Nepal that Prachanda's regime will not be weak in the face of external interference. For India, the matter is all but closed, with most of Nepal's political forces (with the exception of Oli's UML) now in agreement over the need for amendment. And so, it's unlikely that the topic was going to feature too heavily in bilateral discussions anyway.

Second, the 'no controversial agreement' part is another win-win. At home, Prachanda sends out the message that he has the nation's interest at heart and will not lose sight of it, come what may. To India, the point is moot. The sorts of agreements likely to be signed will be developmental (hydroelectric projects, infrastructure financing or relating to post-2015 earthquake rehabilitation), cultural (media cooperation and the like) or educational (university tie-ups or scholarships) in nature. After all, it's not as though Modi and Prachanda will sign a defence treaty with China as the target. So, everyone's a winner.

The general perception is that while Prachanda intends to improve relations with India — or at least manage them better than Oli did, he will do so on his own terms.

The unsurprising surprise on the menu?

China is likely to come up in discussions. It's inevitable. However, with Prachanda's long-professed desire to enjoy warm relations with both India and China and the fact that this visit gives India and Nepal a chance to rebuild their ties, neither party is likely to delve too deeply into the China issue or try to convince one another of a future course of action. As US diplomats are known to say, "It is what it is".

It's not entirely implausible, however, that Pakistan that could be the subject of a lot more discussion. Why? Setting aside the fact that Nepal has almost nothing to do with Pakistan in a bilateral sense, both countries are members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc). And there's a Saarc Summit coming up in under two months (9 and 10 November) in Islamabad.

It may be recalled that the Saarc Summit in Kathmandu in 2014 was paralysed by Modi and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's near-refusal to even acknowledge each other (publicly). Saarc, as a whole, has fallen victim to the India-Pakistan spat. The South Asian Free Trade Agreement (Safta) has flattered to deceive (for want of a gentler phrase). Most of the agreements signed between the eight-nation bloc remain on paper alone. And that's without even factoring in the latest development in the South Asian soap opera.

Pakistan has always been vocal in international fora about its perceptions of Kashmir — to whom it belongs, what it suffers, who is to blame etc. It's only in recent times that India has taken to these very fora to voice its complaints against Pakistan for fomenting terror in the region, supporting militancy in Kashmir and Islamabad's human rights violations in Balochistan. The latter is a very recent development — popping up most notably a month ago (to the day) during Modi's Independence Day speech at the Red Fort.

If the equation between New Delhi and Islamabad wasn't vitiated enough, these developments have resulted in a further deterioration of ties. After the warm meeting with Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, Modi will be keen to have an equally feel-good meeting with Prachanda, wherein some agreements (favourable to Nepal) can be signed, possibly in exchange for Kathmandu's cooperation, if not support, at the Saarc Summit. And with Afghanistan and Nepal on board, there's a chance Pakistan could be further isolated in Saarc.

By appearing to be the only one standing in the way of the bloc's progress, the perception of Pakistan will worsen internationally, to India's benefit. Schadenfreude does after all, play a major role in international relations.

And with Saarc in mind, don't be surprised if a Modi meeting with Maithripala Sirisena is right around the corner. For now though, he must focus on winning back the trust of Nepal.

Updated Date: Sep 15, 2016 13:11 PM

Also See