When Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal arrives in New Delhi on a state visit on Thursday, he must recognise some familiar landmarks. After all, he spent most of 1996-2006 during the revolution he unleashed on Nepal safe within his party’s secret headquarters in the eastern suburbs of the Indian capital. He will also remember some of the pomp that accompanied his first state visit here in 2008 after his party’s landslide victory in the post-conflict election.
Compared to his last visit, though, Dahal may find the Indian welcome a trifle muted. The reception he got from officialdom and media in 2008 was nothing short of ecstatic.
It was almost as if the Indian establishment wanted to portray his visit as the successful culmination of the 12-point agreement it brokered between Nepal’s democratic parties and the Maoists in New Delhi in November 2005.
In fact, the media portrayed Dahal as a role model for India’s own Maoists — someone they could emulate. Look at your comrade from Nepal, they seemed to say, he gave up his armed struggle and got elected, and so could you. A full page interview in an Indian newspaper during the visit highlighted his call to Naxalites to learn a lesson or two from him.
But, as we know, it did not take long for Dahal’s relations with India to sour. New Delhi stopped trusting him perhaps because he did not deliver on some undisclosed promises, or maybe owing to moves he made to capture total state power with the removal of Army Chief Gen Rookmangud Katawal as the last straw. Dahal resigned the day after President Yadav reinstated Gen Katawal, and thereafter blamed New Delhi scathingly for being behind the move.
However, Nepal’s rulers and opinion makers seem to have made up their minds that the main reason New Delhi was ticked off with Dahal was that he visited Beijing first. Whatever we may think about India micromanaging Nepal’s political affairs, it is unlikely that India’s foreign policy establishment would be so petty as to punish Nepal’s leader simply for going to China first. India has bigger fish to fry, and contrary to perception here, the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi doesn’t spend all its daylight hours obsessing about goings on in Nepal.
Even so, Dahal seems to be still smarting from the ignominy of his resignation in 2009. Which could be why he is hurrying off to do Delhi before attending the United Nations General Assembly a week later so as not to risk ruffling Indian feathers again. He is doing the usual rounds in Delhi, and even courting the BJP constituency by attending a Patanjali yoga session.
Dahal may have to rely on more than just yoga to restore bilateral relations. After a bruising blockade and India’s open disdain for the coalition led by Prime Minister K P Oli of which the Dahal-led Maoists were a part, Nepal-India relations need to be rebooted. Dahal has tried hard to break the ice by giving conciliatory pre-visit interviews in which he said he and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has the right ‘chemistry’. However, it may be the ‘physics’ he needs to get right.
India’s main agenda on Nepal seen during the blockade and during the visit is to push through amendments in our constitution passed by the Assembly last year — especially provisions related to the two Tarai provinces and the inclusion of five disputed districts, citizenship rules, and electoral boundaries. Dahal will be under pressure to show flexibility, but since all politics is local, his antennae will be attuned to public opinion back home.
UML leaders K P Oli, Madhav Nepal and Jhalnath Khanal met Dahal before his visit and warned him not to undermine the country’s sovereignty during his visit. It is clear Dahal’s hands are tied because the arithmetic of parliament means that he will need the UML to pass the amendments. Oli wants revenge on Dahal for stabbing him in the back, and will drive a hard bargain for the necessary votes.
Last year’s blockade has been a public relations disaster for India, and the antipathy runs so deep that it will undermine India’s national interest here unless something is done. As Nepal’s neighbour and dominant trading partner, Nepal cannot afford to have antagonistic relations with India. Dahal also has to ensure that ties with China are on an even keel. Beijing is irked by the recent regime change in Kathmandu, as well as Nepal’s lukewarm response to President Xi’s pet project: the One Belt One Road connectivity project for Eurasia.
Besides his southern yoga diplomacy, Dahal may also need to practice tai chi before heading north.