When Nepal’s Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ arrives in New Delhi on Thursday, it will represent a remarkable turn in his own complex relations with the government of India. It will also mark a stunning turn in India’s own relationship with Nepal, after a drastic dip in 2015-16, and re-establish Delhi’s centrality in Nepal affairs.
But the limitations of the visit are important to bear in mind. It will only go so far in helping resolve Nepal’s most pressing fundamental domestic challenge – of constitutional reform and constitution implementation. It is on that question that the success and failure of Prachanda’s own term, and the future of Nepal-India ties, rests.
Fighting Indian ‘expansionism’
To understand the swings in Prachanda’s relationship with India, we need to go back to his entry into politics, socialisation and the context of the times.
A young man who joined one of the shades of Nepal’s radical communist movement in the 70s, Prachanda grew up in the years when Nepali nationalism was equated with resistance to India – this was encouraged by the monarchy as a way to bolster its own legitimacy. Delhi’s moves in Sikkim were seen with fear and dread in Kathmandu and as proof of Indian ‘expansionism’. In communist literature, Nepal was theorised as a ‘semi-colony’ of India – eyeing Nepal’s raw materials and natural resources, and treating it as little more than a captive market. The Indian state was perceived to be backing the democratic Nepali Congress, the key rival of the communists and domestic ‘class enemies’. Prachanda read Maoist and Marxist texts, translated in Nepali from Hindi. His judgment of Indian state as the principal enemy of the Nepali masses was framed in this milieu, not any direct engagement. He had not met a single senior Indian diplomat through the 70s, 80s, and even 90s.
In 1996, when the obituary of communism had been written after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nepal’s Maoists - led by Prachanda - decided to pick the gun.
Through the decade-long insurgency, he pulled off a balancing act - of living for 8 of the 10 years underground in various Indian cities while threatening to fight a bunker war with India, and eventually seeking Indian facilitation in initiating a peace process. At different points, depending on the circumstances of the war back home, he either stepped up rhetoric against India or sought to engage with it.
The turning point came in 2002 when the Nepali conflict had become triangular – between the king, the Maoists, and the parliamentary forces. The Royal Nepal Army had launched an offensive against the Maoists. And Prachanda recognised that eventually, there would have to be a political solution to the crisis. Through the JNU academic, SD Muni, Prachanda sent a letter to the then NSA, Brajesh Mishra, explaining the rationale for the Maoist rebellion and committing that Maoists would not hurt Delhi’s interests. Indian intelligence agencies now stepped up their engagement with Nepali Maoists, even as officially India continued to call them ‘terrorists’ and arm the Royal Nepal Army to fight the rebels.
Nudged by his thoughtful deputy Baburam Bhattarai, Prachanda slowly concluded that winning and retaining state power was not possible through armed rebellion and that he needed to work with India and Nepal’s moderate parliamentary forces. The monarch acted unwisely in 2005, trampled on democracy, and antagonised India. Delhi was now open to bringing Maoists into the political system. A political pact was signed in India between Maoists and parliamentary forces. Prachanda was grateful to Delhi for helping him gain legitimacy. India was happy with its successful peacemaking initiative and concluded the Maoists had turned a new leaf.
In power, the rift
As the elected PM in 2008, Prachanda got off on the wrong track from the Indian point of view. For one, he made China his first foreign outing – and said this marked krambhangata, departure from norm. India was not happy but let it pass, and welcomed him soon after. But the tensions escalated when Prachanda opened other fronts. A party document declared India and its ‘brokers’ enemies; he sought to replace Indian priests with Nepali priests at the Pashupati Nath Temple.
And most importantly, he took on the Nepal army and dismissed its chief. India saw the NA as an extension of its own security architecture, a key ally, and was concerned that Maoists wanted to change the ‘character’ of the army and capture state power to establish a one-party regime. Delhi mobilised the rest of Nepal’s political class against Prachanda’s move.
The PM had to resign. The army chief stayed. India helped form a new non-Maoist government.
Prachanda then decided that ‘nationalism’ would be his calling card – and he sought to make Indian role in domestic Nepali politics the centrepiece of a campaign. The street agitation petered out. Delhi also pulled out all stops to keep him in the opposition. While Prachanda himself could not become the PM, he managed to break the anti-Maoist coalition when he supported another leader, Jhalanath Khanal of the CPN-UML, as PM.
Eventually, India and Maoists recognised that they had to do business with each other and there was a rapprochement of sorts.
The Maoist leader listened to Indian advice and pushed the nomination of the chief justice as the head of an elected government in early 2013. But when the Maoists lost the elections, Prachanda developed deep doubts about Indian intentions and began feeling he had been trapped.
He also, at this stage, sensed that if the constitution had emerged from the first Constituent Assembly – when the Maoists were in a majority – he would have benefited. He began to see an Indian conspiracy in the dissolution of the CA in 2012, which had led to the elections. But Indian officials insisted that Prachanda was wrong, that Delhi had, in fact, enabled an agreement between differing sides on the constitution, but it broke down because of deep internal differences. Prachanda, however, told me, “Delhi could have done more to help us promulgate the constitution from the first CA.” The two sides were talking to each other, but the suspicion persisted.
The constitutional divide
The memory of CA 1, and the manner it ended was to shape Prachanda’s attitudes towards the second Constituent Assembly. He led an opposition alliance of Madhesi and hill ethnic forces and demanded identity-based federalism, with two plains-only provinces in Nepal’s Tarai and inclusion and representation guarantees for the marginalised.
The ruling parties, Nepali Congress and UML, had close to a two-thirds majority between them – enough to force the constitution through. India supported a constitution based on consensus. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during a visit to Kathmandu in November 2014, categorically said that the constitution is a foundational document, it can be amended with a two-thirds majority, but should be drafted on the basis of consensus. This was music to the ears of both Maoists and Madhesis.
And that is when the Great Nepal Earthquake of April 2015 struck.
Prachanda suddenly switched sides, and allied with NC and UML – and dropped the agenda of federalism and inclusion. The Madhesi forces were now left isolated. There have been many theories about this shift. Prachanda himself claims he did so because he did not want the second CA to suffer the same fate as the first one – this would end up ‘criminalising’ the entire Maoist movement since they would have failed to meet their political objective of drafting a constitution.
Based on his assessment of why CA-1 ended, Prachanda also felt that India would not allow the constitutional project to succeed. Indian officials reject this contention outright – and claim that all they wanted was an inclusive consensual constitution. An angry Indian official says, “We invested in Nepal’s peace process. Why would we not want the country to have a constitution?” Instead, Delhi’s reading was that Prachanda allowed his core ethnic and caste identity to prevail over his ideological commitment to the subaltern. Others believe that Prachanda was motivated by a desire to return to power – by signing on to a constitution on terms set by the ruling elite, he would be able to get a share of state power.
This discord between India and Maoists was most visible when foreign secretary S Jaishankar visited Kathmandu as PM Modi’s special envoy.
In his meeting with Prachanda, Jaishankar reminded him of the positive Indian role in accommodating the Maoists into the political system. He urged him to pause the constitutional process, and bring dissenting Madhesis on board, as a constitution promulgated with a curfew imposed, the army deployed, protesters being killed would create instability. Instability, in turn, would have an impact across the border. That is why it was in India’s interest that Nepal accommodates political grievances. Prachanda, in turn, told the FS that he had come too late since the constitution had already been finalised and was about to be declared.
Three weeks later, despite Delhi’s advice, Prachanda went ahead and supported the majoritarian chauvinist leader, KP Oli, as prime minister. Responding to the border blockade imposed by the Madhesis and backed by India, Prachanda said he would rather travel on a bicycle than bow to foreign diktats. Delhi was furious.
India-Maoist relations had hit rock-bottom.
India was unhappy with the Maoist U-turn on the constitution. But it saw KP Oli, who had driven the constitution process, as the main obstacle. After a sustained political movement in the plains, pressure by India, and recognition that the guarantees provided to the Madhesis in the interim constitution had to be restored, Oli agreed to amend the constitution. But he did not go all the way and many issues, particularly related to federal demarcation, remained contested. He also used the discord with India to invite a greater Chinese role in Nepali politics.
Delhi wanted Oli out. And to achieve this aim, it re-engaged closely with Prachanda. The Maoist leader was restless. His party colleagues felt that an alliance with UML would weaken the Maoists further. Prachanda could also sense an opportunity to become the prime minister himself, and lead a process of national reconciliation. The opposition NC was willing to play ball. India encouraged all sides and Prachanda returned to Baluwatar, the PM’s official residence in Kathmandu in early August.
Prachanda’s forthcoming visit to Delhi can only be understood in this backdrop – of deep discord followed by friendship, of suspicion followed by collaboration, of a sense of betrayal followed by renewed partnership between the two sides.
For the Narendra Modi government, the visit and the feel good sentiment is an answer to domestic critics who have claimed that the current government has ‘lost Nepal’. It is also a vindication of its own principled position that Nepal’s constitutional project needed wider acceptance – the fact that almost all of Nepal’s major political forces, except Oli’s UML, now agree that the constitution needs to be amended is a moral victory for Delhi. The visit is also an opportunity for India to steer Nepal back to its more traditional pro-India foreign policy orientation. The Chinese engagement has grown, and it has become even more important for India to have a friendly regime in Kathmandu.
For Prachanda, the visit is an opportunity to show to his domestic constituency that he has international legitimacy and acceptance. While he has to be careful not to be seen as tilting too close to India, since Oli and company may paint it as having sold Nepal’s interests, Prachanda wants to show back home that under him, relations with India have been brought back on track. The Maoist chairman wants to also use the visit to deepen his political relationships with Indian establishment, make admissions of past errors and seek reassurance that Delhi would support him.
But the main challenge for the Nepali PM is back home. He had hoped to register a constitutional amendment to accommodate Madhesi concerns before coming. But this looks unlikely now, given deep differences on the nature of the amendment.
Getting a consensus between the ruling parties and Madhesi forces on the amendment is the first step. Getting it through the parliament, in the face of UML opposition, is the second step. And once the constitution is reformed, implementing it and holding elections three elections - local, provincial and national - by January 2018 is necessary. If this does not happen, the power-sharing arrangement between NC and Maoists may collapse.
More importantly, Nepal may head towards another constitutional crisis, which will inevitably drag India in. And that is why Nepal’s fundamental challenge is getting its domestic act together.