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Political Cost of PM Bhattarai’s India Visit

Nihar R Nayak is Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • October 31, 2011

    The visit of Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai to New Delhi in October 2011 had initially raised hopes for the peace process in Nepal. It was also expected that the visit would help remove the misunderstandings between the UCPN-Maoist and India. However, later events proved that the optimism was misplaced, though Indian scholars have generally expressed satisfaction over the outcome of Bhattarai’s visit.

    Meanwhile, a new controversy seems to have emerged in Nepal with regard to Bhattarai signing Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (BIPPA) during his New Delhi visit. Bhattarai’s move has been opposed since he heads a transitional government and the country is still to have a constitution. This has widened the rift within the UCPN-Maoist. According to media reports, not only the hard-line faction led by Mohan Vaidya, but also some leaders from the establishment faction argued during a Standing Committee meeting of the party on October 25, 2011 that the BIPPA was arrived at “without sufficient discussions within the party”. The establishment faction was however in a minority on this issue. Out of a total of nine Standing Committee members, five from the Vaidya faction and three from the establishment faction demanded abrogation or review of the BIPPA, while one member, Krishna Bahadur Mahara, remained neutral.

    Prime Minister Bhattarai has virtually been isolated on BIPPA. President Prachanda has also remarked that the “agreement was wrong”. His changing the goalpost in this manner may embolden the hard-line faction within the party and other opposition groups to oppose the agreement more vigorously. Prachanda’s statement directly affects the position of Bhattarai within the party and brings into question the credibility of the prime minister’s office to take such long-term policy decisions.

    Prime Minister Bhattarai has faced one controversy after another ever since he assumed office. The hard-line factions have termed the BIPPA as “anti-national” and alleged that it would promote “Indian monopoly in the Nepali economy”. The prime minister is already embroiled in other controversies with both the hardline faction of his party and opposition leaders criticising him on several issues. They have been demanding, for example, abrogation of the government’s four-point deal with the United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF). The hardliners have also been opposing the government’s decision to hand over the Maoist armed containers’ keys to the Army Integration Special Committee.

    The BIPPA is not a new phenomenon for Nepal. It has already signed similar agreements with Finland, Mauritius, France, Germany, and UK. The BIPPA with India is a more moderate version compared with the others: it omits sensitive words/phrases like “revolt” and “revolution”, which are found in the other agreements. India, on its part, has signed BIPPAs with eighty-one countries so far, out of which seventy are operational. Among the South Asian countries, India has BIPPAs with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, which are operational and running smoothly.

    The India-Nepal BIPPA, however, seems to have come at an inopportune time, given the Nepalese Communists/Maoists’ allergy to anything related to India and the political instability in Nepal. If the visit was very necessary at this moment, it could have focused more on developmental assistance from India to Nepal.

    The Maoist party is divided into three major factions, among which the Bhattarai faction is the weakest. The hard-line Vaidya faction has regularly benefited from spreading anti-India disinformation on various agreements with India for gaining both external and domestic support since 1996. The BIPPA provides another opportunity for them to justify their political line against the moderates. Most importantly, earlier, the hard-line faction had a strong support amongst the migrant Nepalese in India, especially in the industrial areas and also had influence in the front organizations like the All India Nepali Unit Centre active in India. Members of this outfit make regular subscription payments to the party.

    In this situation, Bhattarai needs more of his party support than any external support. India’s role in this situation should be that of a facilitator, bringing various Maoist factions together by engaging their top leadership. There is an impression amongst the Standing Committee members of the UCPN-Maoist that during Bhattarai’s visit India tried to project him as a strong leader at the expense of other leaders in the party. As a result, the party did not gain much from this visit. Therefore, India could have taken advantage of the presence of Narayan Kaji Shrestha, the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister to reach out to the hard-line faction. India would have done well by having a parallel session with Shrestha who is closer to President Prachanda. Shrestha had also played a key role in the 12-point agreement that brought the Maoists and other political parties together in 2005.

    The way the prime minister was greeted by his party cadres after his visit from India demonstrates that the misunderstanding between India and Maoists still persists. India needs to find a modus vivendi to deal with all sections of Maoists. This will not be easy but India must try. The hard-line faction will remain more powerful than the moderates as long as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Young Communist League (YCL) remain intact and call the shots in the political affairs of Nepal. Last but not the least, Prachanda still remains the unchallenged leader of the party, with aspirations to become Prime Minister. He also has the ability to play the role of a fine balancer between the hard-liners and moderates.

    Nevertheless, the visit gave an opportunity to both India and the Maoists to settle some of their misunderstandings. Bhattarai had come to India with the twin objectives of mending his party’s relationship with India and building a development partnership with India. He was successful to some extent in convincing India to trust them as a democratic force with commitment to the peace process. In return, India tried to allay the general Nepalese perception about New Delhi being totally anti-Maoist. On the economic front, both the BIPPA and $250 million Line of Credit extended by India will help in the economic growth of Nepal. Prachanda’s support to Bhattarai being merely tactical, it could be a huge risk for India to engage him more at the individual level than at the party level. India needs to broaden its interaction to include all factions in all the political parties of Nepal and readjust its policy according to the popular aspirations prevailing in the country.

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