Nepalese victor seen as pro-Delhi plant
By Dhruba Adhikary
KATHMANDU - The election of Baburam Bhattarai as Nepal's fourth prime minister
in four years appears a defeat for democracy and a victory for the
revolutionary left, but Nepal's elites fear pro-Indian elements will benefit
It was a 2008 general election victory that first handed Bhattarai's boss,
Pushpa Kamal Dahal or "Prachanda", a chance to form the country's first
Maoist-led government. Now Bhattarai finds himself at the forefront of Nepal's
Two of the last four governments formed since 2008 have been headed by
revolutionary Maoist leaders, indicating that the radical
left is not likely to be sidelined any time soon. Those who believed the
resignation of Prachanda in May 2009 - nine months after his appointment -
heralded the beginning of the end for the Maoists are likely dismayed since last week.
However, while Prachanda then headed a coalition of like-minded communists,
Bhattarai counts among his major coalition partners a loosely-maintained front
of five southern-based regional parties, most of whose leaders are accused of
overt servility to New Delhi and its representatives in Nepal.
Some media reports have said that Bhattarai, who received his higher education
in a Delhi university, is a pro-India figure being promoted to eventually oust
the nationalist Prachanda as the Maoist's leader. This, claim the reports,
would boost India in its struggle with China for influence over the Himalayan
The congratulatory message Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sent to
Bhattarai appeared to reflect New Delhi's mood. Before Bhattarai had even taken
his oath of office, Singh sent a "cordial invitation" for Bhattarai to visit
India, something his predecessor, Jhalanath Khanal, did not receive during his
entire six-month tenure.
Singh's communication also alluded to the "special" nature of bilateral
relations: "characterized by intense people-to-people interaction and an open
border." While the geographical proximity of the countries have ensured a long
history of "people-to-people interaction", the word "special" has remained
disputed for decades, particularly due to its hegemony-laden nuances.
The prime minister's reference to the countries' 1,808-kilometer-long "open
border" is also not without controversy. The Indian side usually uses the 1950
Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship as justification for maintaining the
open status of the border, which allows unregulated movement of people from
either side. New Delhi cites the porous nature of the frontier to stress that
India's security is tied with Nepal's stability.
However, Nepal, before and after the monarchy's abolition in 2008 - has always
expressed reservations about the border's status. No article in the 1950 treaty
requires it to remain open.
Two days after his appointment on August 28, new Indian ambassador to Nepal
Jayanta Prasad met outgoing prime minister Khanal, delivering the message that
India would not "take a stand of 'wait and see' with the transitional situation
here". A former Nepali ambassador to the United Nations who did not want to be
identified told Asia Times Online the statement was a signal that New Delhi has
embarked upon a plan to make Nepal's sovereign, independent status a
"Is the ultimate destination then: Gangtok or Thimphu?", wondered seasoned
journalist M R Josse, in his latest weekly column last Thursday. The first
reference was to the capital of Sikkim, which was annexed by India in 1974. The
second was to the capital of Bhutan, which has been made an Indian protectorate
for all intent and purposes - Josse was Nepal's deputy ambassador to the UN
till the early 1990s.
In this regard, a four-point deal concluded on August 28 between the Maoist
party and the front of regional leaders, locally known as Madhesis - dwellers
of the southern districts bordering India - has raised eyebrows among the
Nepali intelligentsia. The deal was made hours before Bhattarai was elected as
Nepali elites see Bhattarai's apparent keenness to retain his image of a
revolutionary communist leader, as undermined by the four-point agreement with
Madhesi politicians known for their pro-India tilt, and say the deal raises
doubts over his commitment to work for the national interest.
"The circumstances that led to conclusion of agreement between our party
chairman and Madhesi regional leaders still remain mysterious," Dev Gurung, the
Maoist leader in the dissenting (but majority) faction associated with
vice-president Mohan Baidya 'Kiran' told Asia Times Online.
For instance, the agreement contains a provision which states that under a
proposed federal structure, states in the southern region will be given the
"right to self-determination", among other things.
The provision of "right to self-determination" for the southern flatland,
called Terai, carries a clear "separatist tenor", said Gurung.
To add fuel to the fire, the Maoist party has agreed to a Madhesi demand that
the national army create a separate division for Madhesis, with an initial
strength of 10,000 soldiers. One of the provisions of the agreement states that
Nepal's formal dress code, including the traditional hats, would also be done
"Would not our party be accused of having agreed to a sell-out to India if we
had entered into this kind of agreement, " wondered Laxman Ghimire, chief whip
of Nepali Congress in the constituent assembly, which now has received a three
months extension, ending November 30. With 340 seats the Maoists dominate the
601-member assembly, which has been attempting to draft a new republican
constitution suitable for Nepal after the monarchy was abolished.
Meanwhile, Nepali Congress and Unified Marxist Leninist (UML), two of the three
main parties, are now sitting in the opposition. They can form a formidable
challenge for Bhattarai and his Maoist party on the proposition to withdraw
criminal cases filed against Maoists and Madhesis in various courts in the
country. During the Maoist insurgency (1996-2006), some 16,000 people lost
their lives, and considerable blood was also spilled during a brief Madhesi
That most Maoist leaders have blood-stained hands will also not be easily
overlooked by the international community. That probably is the reason why only
a few countries found it worthwhile issue congratulatory messages to Bhattarai.
In Kathmandu, US ambassador Scott DeLisi became the first foreign diplomat to
meet the new prime minister, but State Department officials in Washington
maintained that while the United States would work with a communist prime
minister in Nepal, Maoists have to do more to be removed from its watch-list of
"While the party has taken some positive steps, we continue to have areas of
concern which must be addressed before the party could be de-listed,"
spokeswoman Victoria Nuland is quoted as saying. Members of such organizations
are not given travel visas to the United States.
Prime Minister Bhattarai has a long agenda and a very short timeframe - the
assembly has an extension of just three months - to address them. Although he
served as Prachanda's finance minister for nine months, Bhattarai has fiercely
maintained his integrity. Holding a PhD, he is the most educated prime minister
Nepal has ever had.
With such qualifications, it is hoped he can aggressively, and swiftly, move to
resolve outstanding issues like the question of integration/rehabilitation of
some 19,000 odd Maoist combatants. He is also aware that the abolition of the
monarchy could lose legitimacy should the constitution writing face yet further
In a sign of early progress, the Maoists last week handed the government some
of the keys to containers storing thousands of weapons from the insurgency.
However, one faction of the Maoist party, headed by Kiran, said on September 4
that the handover was a US-Indian conspiracy to make the PLA members (People's
Liberation Army) surrender before the authority. Prachanda issued his own
statement defending the collective decision that had been taken earlier.
Other major challenges Bhattarai faces are accommodating the aims of his
party's more aspiring comrades and balancing the expectations of his coalition
On September 4, Bhattarai inducted 13 ministers in the cabinet to make it a
15-member team that includes two deputy prime ministers, one from a coalition
partner representing the front of regional parties.
While he now has ministers to look after home and foreign affairs, his failure
to appoint a defense minister indicates that has listened to the voices of
Nepal Army generals who are against the idea of having a regional (pro-India)
leader head their ministry.
Meanwhile, the dissenting Maoist leader has declined to send any of
his comrades to join the government headed by Bhattarai. While Prachanda is
trying to close ranks on the issue amicably, chances of a Maoist party split
cannot be ruled out. In such a scenario, Bhattarai's government could collapse
and become yet another victim of upheaval in Nepal's political scene.
Dhruba Adhikary is a Kathmandu-based journalist.
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