Prachanda India bhai bhaiDahal used the visit to Delhi to restore his own ties with India more than anything else
India was not happy with the government led by CPN-UML Chairman KP Oli, which was formed after the promulgation of the new constitution. The southern neighbour believed that the Oli administration tilted towards China and was not serious about establishing cordial relations with it. Obviously, India was in favour of changing the government in Kathmandu, but it maintained that a “government change in Nepal is an internal matter of Nepal”. Facing charges of meddling in Nepal’s internal affairs, India has tried to give an impression that it is not involved in the game of changing governments. When Pushpa Kamal Dahal became prime minister, India was obviously happy.
India tried hard to convince the new prime minister that it would give him its full support. India invited Dahal to visit New Delhi as soon as possible, and he agreed. Delhi is happy with him because he did not visit China first like he did in 2008 during his first stint as prime minister.
There are mixed perceptions about the outcome of Dahal’s visit to India. Some say that the visit was successful as it contributed to enhancing bilateral relations and building a foundation of trust, while others have raised questions over some points in the joint statement. But in terms of content, there has not been any substantial progress in bilateral issues.
Pleasing thy neighbour
Prime Minister Dahal’s sole purpose in visiting India was improving ties with Indian leaders. He sidestepped disputed bilateral issues during his stay in Delhi. Both sides were keen to give an impression that Nepal-India relations had returned to normalcy. So they skipped contentious subjects. Dahal did not bring up the subject of the 1950 treaty or the border disputes, particularly in Susta and Kalapani. Earlier, he used to focus on trilateral cooperation between Nepal, India and China. This time he did not talk about this three-way cooperation with the Indian side. Dahal knows that India is not happy with this concept, and he did not broach any subject that India might feel uncomfortable about.
The positive thing, however, is that Dahal held a very candid and open dialogue with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on bilateral issues, even though no agreements were reached on vital issues. It seems that Dahal’s main priority was building a good rapport with India, and he has succeeded in doing so. During his meeting with a wide range of officials and leaders, Dahal conveyed the message that he wanted to build cordial relations with India. In other words, Dahal’s sole purpose in visiting New Delhi was to appease India. Just before his trip, he gave an interview to the Hindustan Times daily stating that there were some similarities between him and Indian Prime Minister Modi. This time, he tried to win the trust of Indian leaders instead of getting into controversial discussions. He was very cautious not to create any controversy during his visit.
Dahal’s visit to India should be taken in the context of his past rapport with India, mainly after 2009. When Dahal resigned as prime minister in 2009 blaming India for orchestrating his downfall, his relations with New Delhi soured. As a leader of the largest party in the first Constituent Assembly (CA), he was naturally close to China as his ties with India were not good. His party also launched a symbolic protest against the southern neighbour. There were serious differences between Dahal and Baburam Bhattarai, the then second in command of the Maoist party, on how to view India. There was mistrust between Dahal and India. Dahal used to believe that India prevented him from ascending to power after 2009.
Dahal was always suspicious that India would not favour him. On the other hand, there was a perception in India that Dahal was not a “trusted political figure as he is close to China”. Dahal utilised this visit to restore his image in India instead of resolving bilateral issues. He has already admitted that he made a mistake in 2009 because of immaturity and lack of experience. It clearly seems that Dahal wants Delhi’s favour to increase his domestic leverage. India is also favouring Dahal’s party to counter the CPN-UML. Indian diplomats and media have described Dahal as being a “wiser and more matured leader than he was in 2009”.
During his four-day stay in India, Dahal met with several Indian journalists and told them that his priority was strengthening bilateral relations. Addressing a function organised by a think-tank, India Foundation, Dahal said that there were both challenges and opportunities during his visit, and that he had succeeded in converting the challenges into opportunities. He tried to convince Indian leaders to welcome Nepal’s constitution. When the Indian side refused to do so, Dahal backtracked from his position. Though Dahal continues to emphasise balanced relations with India and China, he has clearly given an impression that he is naturally closer to India than to China. One of India’s major concerns after the promulgation of the constitution is growing Chinese influence in Nepal. After the visit, New Delhi believes that the new government will tilt towards Delhi instead of Beijing.
Another key Indian concern is addressing the demands of Madhes-based parties. There is hope among a wide range of circles in India that Dahal will be able to amend the constitution. During informal meetings, Dahal has been assured that he will secure two-thirds of the votes in Parliament in order to amend the constitution. Indian leaders, diplomats, professors and people from various sectors seem to be very positive towards Dahal at private meetings. They say that Nepal-India relations will be more cordial under Dahal’s leadership and that the Madhes issues will be resolved. Dahal’s visit to India has helped to clear misunderstandings between the two countries, and it appears that bilateral relations have now returned to normalcy. But Dahal utilised his visit more to restore his ties with India, something he had been meaning to do for a long time. My overall impression of Prime Minister Dahal’s visit is that he wants to be a trusted politician of India in Nepal.
Bhattarai is The Kathmandu Post’s Delhi correspondent