Nepal Maoist chief aims for better ties with India

Once a fiery critic of India, Pushpa Kamal Dahal has recently extended an olive branch. In April, he paid a four-day visit to New Delhi, his first in five years.

By Kosh Raj Koirala for Khabar South Asia in Kathmandu

May 23, 2013
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After more than five years of strained relations, Nepal's Maoist party is taking steps to improve ties with India. A key milestone occurred at the end of April, when its leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also known as Prachanda, paid a four-day visit to Delhi.

  • Pushpa Kamal Dahal, chairman of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), gestures during his speech to the party's general convention at Hetauda, Nepal on February 2nd. Dahal -- also known as Prachanda -- said his four-day visit to India in late April helped build trust with the southern neighbour. [Prakash Mathema/AFP]

    Pushpa Kamal Dahal, chairman of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), gestures during his speech to the party's general convention at Hetauda, Nepal on February 2nd. Dahal -- also known as Prachanda -- said his four-day visit to India in late April helped build trust with the southern neighbour. [Prakash Mathema/AFP]

In a May 1st interview with Kantipur Daily, Dahal said the visit was "great" and helped "create the atmosphere to realise the goals I had when I arrived in India" – trust-building, assistance with Nepal's upcoming elections, and a "quantitative boost" in bilateral support.

"As for the issue of building a new trust, I believe, I achieved more than I had expected," he told the news portal.

Prachanda's Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) emerged as Nepal's dominant political force after the country's decade-long civil war ended in 2006. Although India helped broker a 12-point agreement that brought the conflict to an end, the Maoists turned cold towards Delhi after emerging as the single largest party in Constituent Assembly elections held in April 2008.

After becoming prime minister in August 2008, Dahal broke a long-held tradition and chose China instead of India for his first foreign visit.

Party cadres hurled shoes at then-Indian ambassador to Nepal Rakesh Sood, condemned Indian joint ventures operating in Nepal, and accused their large neighbour of interference in their internal affairs.

Dahal now says it is time to bury the hatchet and put ties on a warmer footing. The former rebel leader assured the Indian leadership that he and his party are "committed towards strengthening democracy in Nepal" and had "parted ways with those harbouring extremist and anti-Indian ideology".

"For the first time, we have criticised narrow nationalism, feudal nationalism and adopted progressive nationalism. We want good relations with India. Our relations must be the best example of bilateral ties in the rest of the world," The Hindu quoted Dahal as saying.

Dahal met with top Indian officials including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party chief Rajnath Singh, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, and National Security Advisor Shiv Shanker Menon during his April 27th-30th visit.

Moving in the right direction

Lately, Nepal's Maoist leadership has begun to realise that an anti-India stance is not beneficial to the party in the long run, said Akanshya Shah, associate fellow at New Delhi-based think-tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF).

"There seems to be a realisation also over the fact that India was and will remain a key player in Nepal as it moves towards institutionalising the historic changes," she said.

For months now, Dahal has been signaling his desire for rapprochement. In a political document endorsed by the Maoists' General Convention this February, Dahal carefully avoided labelling India as the party's principal enemy.

He also supported the prime ministerial candidacy of the party's Vice Chairman Baburam Bhattarai, seen as India's choice, even though the decision eventually caused a party split after the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly on May 27th, 2012.

The recently concluded integration of former Maoist combatants into Nepal's army has helped allay Indian concerns about the Maoist commitment to peaceful, multi-party democracy.

As for Delhi, it is still taking a cautious stance, said Jayaraj Acharya, a diplomat and former Nepalese ambassador to the UN.

"I see the Indian side adopting a policy of wait and see to the Maoists in Nepal. Even Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid has made it clear that their relations with the Maoists were evolving and moving towards the right direction," he said.

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