Prachanda's back! Will the new PM usher in better India-Nepal relations?

On Wednesday, Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda was appointed the ninth Prime Minister of Nepal (if you include Khil Raj Regmi, who was the acting prime minister between March 2013 and February 2014) since May 2008. Prachanda was elected unopposed and will embark on his second premiership — following his first stint between August 2008 and May 2009 — after being sworn in on Thursday.

Here's a bit of background:

Prachanda, the holder of a diploma in the science of agriculture, was drawn to Leftist politics from an early age, and it was at the age of 27 (in 1981) that he joined the Communist Party of Nepal (Fourth Convention), an early iteration of the CPNs that would begin to emerge.

File image of Prachanda. Reuters

File image of Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda. Reuters

The present chairman of the CPN (Maoist-Centre), Prachanda led the decade-long insurgency against the Nepalese government waged between 1996 and 2006. 'The People's War' — as it was dubbed by the erstwhile CPN (Maoist) — saw the death of over 19,000 people, while between 100,000 and 150,000 people were internally displaced. In a 2001 interview to noted communist journal A World to Win, Prachanda had identified the aim of the insurgency as being "to contribute towards the attainment of glorious Communism by ending all forms of exploitation of man by man from the face of the earth".

It was in that interview — over the course of which he made repeated references to the work of Indian revolutionaries (read Maoists) — that Prachanda stated:

"(We) have been maintaining close relationships with revolutionary parties in India, who have extended great help in different waves to the development of the People's War in Nepal... The Nepalese revolution and our party have been maintaining a lively relationship with the revolutionary parties and movements in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In this respect, we feel that the Indian revolutionary parties and the Indian revolution will have the most important role to play."

After over 10 years of conflict, the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Accord (in November 2006) marked the end of the insurgency.

But his interview to A World to Win is a good starting point to look at Prachanda's own relations with India.

The India equation

During the insurgency, Prachanda had written to the BJP government seeking India's moral support. Apparently spotting an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone (so to speak), the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led government began a series of interactions with Prachanda and other Maoists from Nepal, in the hope that this engagement would inspire India's homegrown Maoists to choose the path of peaceful politics. On the Indian side, the experiment had mixed results, but for Nepal, this interaction with the Government of India culminated in the inking of the '12-point understanding reached between the Seven Political Parties and Nepal Communist Party (Maoists)' in New Delhi in November 2005.

It was soon after taking power in 2008 that Prachanda — who had hitherto shared warm relations with India and its government — ticked New Delhi off by picking China as the destination for his first state visit. India-Nepal relations would suffer further as Prachanda would call for the review of the 1950 Indo-Nepal Peace and Friendship Treaty (insisting later that it wouldn't affect bilateral ties). Bilateral ties seemed to hit a nadir — until that point, anyway — after the Prachanda government's sacking of army chief Rookmangud Katawal, who was believed to be close to India.

In 2009, Prachanda was replaced as prime minister by Madhav Kumar Nepal — a move Prachanda believed had been engineered by India. Drawing parallels with the time the Maoists refused to speak with the 2002 government appointed by King Gyanendra, Prachanda said, "We will not negotiate with the servants... We said we will talk only with the master. It is now time to say the same thing." The 'master' this time wasn't in the Narayanhity Palace in Kathmandu, but in New Delhi.

Over the years, and despite maintaining that Nepal wanted "the same kind of friendship with India and China" (and reaffirming that he would never play Nepal's neighbours against each other), Prachanda continued to blow hot and cold as far as India was concerned. However, he has during that period backed down from the “enemy status” he had accorded “hegemonic India”.

It was soon after taking power in 2008 that Prachanda — who had hitherto shared warm relations with India and its government — ticked New Delhi off by picking China as the destination for his first state visit

So what does the future hold?

India appears to be gaining some sort of undesirable reputation after its alleged involvement in Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa's ouster in January 2015 and now, its perceived role in toppling former Nepalese prime minister KP Oli. Both countries have in recent times, been balancing their relations with India and China, and this has not gone down too well with New Delhi.

On his part, Prachanda has shown pragmatism in balancing India and China, but has lacked the requisite deftness not to ruffle feathers. His second shot at being prime minister will require him to hone that strategy. If indeed, Prachanda reached out to India — including sending confidante Krishna Bahadur Mahara to speak with Indian officials, as is being speculated in the media — this has bought him some time with New Delhi after an acrimonious few months for India-Nepal relations. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already extended Prachanda an invitation to embark on a state visit to India.

However, whether or not he acquiesces 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.

For now though, all signs point to smooth New Delhi-Kathmandu relations... until the next hiccup, that is.

Updated Date: Aug 04, 2016 16:03 PM

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