The first official visit of the newly-elected Nepal Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai to India is of great political significance. But, the second Maoist prime minister will have to walk a political tightrope when he arrives in Delhi on a four-day visit on Thursday.
Nepalese leaders have often returned home to charges of 'selling out to India' by irate opposition parties, but Bhattarai will have to watch out for his own comrades rather than the opposition. The Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist is already at odds with itself over the former insurgent group's second foray in government. The sharp dissension among Maoists is likely to impact Bhattarai's visit to India as the party's standing committee, after its recent meeting had advised him not to enter into any treaty with India during his trip. And hence Thursday's visit is expected to be a goodwill call.
It may be recalled that Maoist party chief and former prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal 'Prachanda' had ruffled some feathers in South Block when he chose to disregard the customary practice and made China his first outward destination instead of India in October last year. However, New Delhi has accorded a warm welcome to each of Bhattarai's four predecessors in the past four years including Prachanda. But it will, however have to take care not to give the impression that the India-educated Bhattarai (he studied at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi) enjoys more favours. The Maoist leader is already under attack from the radical section of his party led by senior vice president Mohan Baidya Kiran for being 'pro-India'.
Given the political sensitivities in Kathmandu, the main agenda of the visit will be focus on economic issues, especially as Nepal's trade deficit with India has been growing because of a decline in exports from Nepal. The Maoists, while in the government have been encouraging Chinese investments in Nepal but it is quite clear that it is India that Kathmandu will have to turn to for help on the economic front.
Two issues that are likely to be addressed are an agreement on the safety and security of Indian investments in Nepal and a request to supply 200 MW of electricity to the power-starved nation. On its part, the Indian government is keen to obtain assurances on the security of investments in Nepal, especially after the 900 MW hydroelectric power plant being constructed by the GMR Group was attacked allegedly by Maoist cadres. Such attacks on property and personnel have dried up the investment climate in Nepal.
A bilateral investment protection agreement under negotiation for some time has been stuck over the provision for compensation for damages incurred.
Bhattarai is reported to have said that Nepal would like to conclude a power trade agreement with India, which would allow for import as well as export of power. Despite its current power crisis, India is expected to agree to the request foe 200 MW of electricity and the difficulties of transmission of the power to the Nepalese grid will be worked out by the two sides. It is ironical that Nepal, which has abundant capacity for developing hydel power, faces chronic power shortages. But the exploitation of the hydel resources still remains a political hot potato
India had offered a line of credit worth $250 million (about Rs 1,225 crore) to Nepal during the visit of its President Ram Baran Yadav's visit in 2010 and some projects under the line of credit are likely to be discussed during the visit.
Indian leaders will be interested in the progress in the peace process from the visiting Nepal PM. After a hiatus of many months, wherein Nepal had two interim governments and the political parties went through the exercise of forming a government, the Bhattarai government has made some effort to restart the peace process.
Bhattarai had promised to complete the preliminary steps on integration of the Maoist cadres within 45 days of assuming power. He is on a short deadline as the constituent assembly's term is to end on November 30. The government took the initial action of handing over the keys to containers holding arms belonging to the Maoist cadres to the special committee. The armed cadres protecting top Maoist leaders were also replaced by Nepalese security forces.
Bhattarai managed to withstand the strong attack mounted on him by the hardline Maoists on these issues. The next step of completing the categorisation of the Maoist combatants into separate groups of those to be integrated in the security forces and others who will be rehabilitated is still to be tackled.
The process of framing the constitution is unlikely to be completed by November end and another extension of the constituent assembly can be expected. Bhattarai has called for major parties to be part of a national unity government, but the Nepali Congress is in the midst of a leadership tussle and not in a position to respond.
Nepali Congress leaders also want the prime minister to demonstrate his commitment to the peace process by resolving the tricky issue of integrating the Maoist combatants. A Nepali Congress leader gave his party colleagues view of the Maoist-led government when he told the Kathmandu Post, "This visit is mainly aimed at improving the Maoist-India relationship."
Image: Nepal's Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai will begin his four-day visit to Indian on Thursday | Photograph: Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters