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Next door Nepal: The vulnerability of Pushpa Kamal Dahal

Just before Dahal’s Delhi trip, clear indications had come from the Chinese side that the much-anticipated visit of President Xi would not take place either on his way to or return from the BRICS meet in Goa.

Written by Yubaraj Ghimire |
October 17, 2016 12:55:39 am
Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal 'Prachanda' with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping during a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit at Benaulim in Goa on Saturday. (Source: PTI photo) Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ with Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping during a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit at Benaulim in Goa on Saturday. (Source: PTI photo)

Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s visit to Goa, his second to India in a month, has generated more curiosity in Nepal about what he is likely to tell Chinese President Xi Jinping. The curiosity is not without reason. Every party except the Nepali Congress has accused Dahal of “sell-out” to India, especially over the 25-point joint statement the two prime ministers issued during his four-day visit to New Delhi in September. Even the Maoists, his own comrades, did not spare him. Among other things, the statement spoke about forging a common position on regional and international affairs in world bodies, and Nepal’s commitment to support India’s bid for a permanent seat in the UN  security council.

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This is not the first time such commitments have been made by Nepal. However, the context of the statement has triggered controversy and criticism at home. Just before Dahal’s Delhi trip, clear indications had come from the Chinese side that the much-anticipated visit of President Xi would not take place either on his way to or return from the BRICS meet in Goa. President Xi’s trips to Bangladesh and Mongolia were to have taken place along with that to Nepal. There was no change to Xi’s Bangladesh and Mongolia plans whereas he is unlikely to visit Kathmandu this year. There is speculation that China wants to send a message to Nepal.

At least for the record, Dahal said Xi’s visit would figure prominently when the two meet on the sidelines of the BRICS summit. The Chinese had been wanting a firm commitment from Kathmandu that all the agreements and understandings reached during K.P. Oli’s tenure as prime minister would be honoured. This implies an assurance from Nepal that it would give equal importance to both its giant neighbours.

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However, Dahal’s Delhi visit in less than a month after he took over and his joint statement with Modi came as clear indicators that Nepal can’t afford to hastily depart from its traditional proximity to India, despite the blockade and Oli getting close to China in rebound. Moreover, India is also perceived as a major factor in ensuring Nepal’s political stability. Dahal, perhaps, wants his remaining tenure of six months — coalition leader and Nepali Congress chairman Sher Bahadur Deuba takes over in May — to be trouble-free.

Dahal’s success in diplomacy will be judged by his ability to bring President Xi to Nepal at the earliest,” Madhu Raman Acharya, a former foreign secretary said. “Nepal could provide a crucial link for China with South Asia,” he added. But China will expect a clear word on the fate of past agreements on enhanced trade, access to sea ports and Chinese railway services being extended to Nepal. In addition, the Chinese side is also believed to have promised necessary “assistance” to the Nepal army for its modernisation.

Will Dahal be able to promise these to China on Indian soil? A failure could cost him his credibility before the Chinese whereas Indians may not take kindly if he does. In Delhi, Dahal had assured Modi that he would bring all the political parties on board and amend the constitution to address the demands of the Madhesis that include more autonomy to provinces, a review of the current demarcation and more rights to naturalised citizens. But the promised date for moving the amendment is already over and a prominent Madhesi leader, Upendra Yadav, has declared that Dahal’s days as prime minister are “numbered”. The Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist, headed by Oli, and seven other parties whose support is crucial for the amendment being carried, have said they will oppose such a move.

India’s diplomatic offensive since the Uri attack has led to the isolation of Pakistan and the cancellation of the SAARC summit in Islamabad. Back in Nepal, the current chair of SAARC, the government is being criticised for not doing enough to save the regional forum. High-placed sources say China is keen to assess Nepal’s perception regarding the future of SAARC.

The coming days are crucial for Dahal. His foreign trips and the commitments he will make there will evoke a reaction at home. The delay in bringing about the promised constitutional amendment to address the demands of the Madhesis and his inability to secure a firm date for President Xi’s Nepal visit will be seen as failures. The vulnerability of Dahal will accentuate the political instability in Nepal and have a demoralising impact on the economy, public safety, and lead to a credibility crisis in the  neighbourhood.

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yubaraj.ghimire@expressindia.com

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