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Turning guns to pens

Thursday, October 27th, 2011
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Economics trumps politics in India-Nepal relations for the first time

JYOTI MALHOTRA in NEW DELHI

Probably for the first time during the visit of a Nepali leader to New Delhi in recent times, economics trumped politics. When Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai met Manmohan Singh last week it was evident there was a new pragmatism in dealing with Nepal.

Indian policy makers, who say they have been burnt, bitten and bruised each time they tried to “influence” good old friends in Nepal, seem to have now decided they will, as much as it can, stay away from playing political sides in Nepal. Meaning, if Bhattarai wants help with the peace process or writing the Constitution, he will have to ask for it.

But officials say this shouldn’t be construed as a new touch-me-not approach towards the Himalayan republic. South Block, that elegant old red stone building in Delhi which houses the ministries of foreign affairs and defence as well as the prime minister’s office, has noticed a big difference it dealing with Bhattarai in comparison to his predecessors.

The trouble is that all this bon homie in Delhi about Nepal’s new prime minister does have an equal and opposite reaction in Nepal. Bhattarai has been greeted by a barrage of criticism since he returned Monday to Kathmandu from hardliners within his own party and the UML.

“Tell me what you want,” Manmohan Singh is said to have told Bhattarai, “and India will do its best to give it.” This message was as true for the $1 billion credit line that Kathmandu was hugely keen be announced during the Bhattarai visit, to building a fast-track highway from Kathmandu to the Tarai. Unfortunately, the requests came too late for the Indian bureaucracy to process it in time for the visit.

Bhattarai had expected opposition to the bilateral investment protection act back home, but what Indian businesses and officials can’t understand is what Jhalanath Khanal and others opposed to it gain by blocking Indian investment in Nepal. After all, they say, Nepal has signed the BIPPA with several other countries.

The most important takeaway from the visit was the signal that India was ready to return to business-as-usual and would, indeed, open its heart as well as its purse-strings based on mutual trust between the two governments. It was also the recognition that India and Nepal can’t do without each other.

Bhattarai has the support of Pushpa Kamal Dahal within his party, and there is now only the Kiran faction playing spoiler. The prime minister was trying to appease critics from within his own party by raising the cases pending against several Nepali Maoists in detention in India.

Bhattarai understands more than any of his predecessors that Nepal could benefit from being the bridge between India and China, but he affirmed that India constitutes a special relationship for his country. He spoke wryly about his own image at his first public meeting in Delhi: “In Nepal, they call me a pro-India agent, and in India they call me an anti-India agent.”

Still, oratory is not Bhattarai’s strong point and he seems to know it. He also seems to know that the time for rhetorical flourishes and symbolism is long over in India-Nepal relations. It is time to work towards economic and trade cooperation to create jobs and raise growth rates in Nepal.

Bhattarai wanted India, the self-declared economic engine of the neighbourhood, to pump money into his country in investment, trade, loans and aid. For its part, India seems more than ready and willing to apply the “Afghan model” with Nepal.

India has disbursed millions of dollars across Afghanistan, including in micro-finance projects to help dig tube wells, build schools, set up sewing machine units for women. The idea is to train and skill a war-torn population, to build and create a new country after decades of civil war.

India hopes it can replicate this in post-conflict Nepal as well. If the Maoists and the Nepali Congress can compromise on the peace process India has offered help in rehabilitation and skills training for ex-combatants.

Barshaman Pun ‘Ananta’ till five years ago was a guerilla commander, planning and leading attacks on military bases. In Delhi last week he was dressed in a business suit and tie as Nepal’s finance minister.

Ananta laughed as I asked him about this transformation. “I have used a gun, and now I have to use a pen,” he said. “But the motive remains the same, to assist in improving the lives of the people of Nepal.”

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