Nepal PM on fence-mending mission to India

by Deepak Adhikari
AFP South Asian Edition

Oct 19, 2011 19:44 EDT

Nepal's prime minister arrives in India on Thursday for a visit aimed at mending a key relationship that has been soured in recent years by mutual suspicion between his ruling Maoists and New Delhi.

The India-Nepal relationship has never been one of equals.

India has traditionally exerted huge political influence over its landlocked, impoverished neighbour, and is easily Nepal's biggest trading partner and sole provider of fuel.

The imbalance has long been a source of simmering resentment in Nepal, which became more pronounced after the Maoists came to power in 2008 following a decade-long civil war.

India, which is fighting its own left-wing insurgency at home, has kept the Maoists at arm's length and is particularly wary of their links to India's main regional rival and Nepal's other giant neighbour, China.

But the new prime minister Baburam Bhattarai, who was only elected two months ago and who studied in the Indian city of Chandigarh, is seen as one of a handful of Maoist leaders who has maintained close ties with New Delhi.

"Bhattarai is an acceptable leader for India and there is hope that he will act as a bridge to improve ties," said political analyst Lok Raj Baral, head of the Nepal Center for Contemporary Studies think-tank.

"India seems to have changed its past policy which sought to marginalise the Maoists. They have realised that their reluctance to maintain good relations with Maoists would only stoke anti-Indianism in Nepal," Baral said.

The fact that Bhattarai has chosen India for his first foreign visit itself sends a message.

India had always been the first port of call for any new Nepalese leader, but that tradition was broken by Maoist chairman Prachanda when he became premier in 2008 and opted to travel to Beijing first.

Bhattarai's rise to power was seen as having India's tacit approval via the support of Nepal's regional and pro-India Madhesi parties.

"The fact that India did not block the Madhesi parties, over which it has substantial influence, from supporting the Maoists is seen as a shift from their earlier hardline policy of keeping the Maoists out of the power structure," said political analyst Prashant Jha.

Bhattarai will meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, President Pratibha Patil and members of the Indian business community on what has been tagged a "goodwill visit".

P.K. Hormis Tharakan, the former chief of India's external intelligence agency, said Bhattarai might also seek Indian help in pushing forward Nepal's troubled peace process.

Since the end of the civil war, political infighting has paralysed Nepal with little progress made in key areas of the peace process, including the drafting of a new constitution and the integration of former Maoist fighters into the army.

Bhattarai's election has failed to make any breakthrough, and Tharakan said India might now be more responsive to any request for help.

Indian suspicion of the Maoists "seems to be giving way to comprehension of the positive implications of a peaceful transition to democracy in Nepal under Maoist leadership and its possible impact on the left-wing extremist movement in India," he wrote in the Indian Express newspaper.

Source: AFP South Asian Edition


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