Foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon was clinically courteous as he answered questions on Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s visit to India this week, his first since becoming Nepal’s prime minister in August.
No, the Nepalese side did not submit a draft to revise the 1950 Treaty of Friendship with India; yes, there were discussions on the Kosi flooding (India gave Rs20 crore as immediate relief); and as to whether Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar had been part of the “integrated” conversation on the Kosi with the Nepal delegation, well, Indians talk to each other all the time. (Kumar has since told journalists that he was kept out of talks with the Nepalese side).
Menon’s impeccable manners and dedication to pragmatism have been the subject of much comment, reminding some of the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s maxim of the irrelevance of the colour of the cat as long as it catches the mice. After all, Menon played a key role in obtaining a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group, alternately persuading and browbeating recalcitrant nations to fall in line.
But with Prachanda, nom de guerre for Dahal, a Maoist revolutionary who chose the ballot over the bullet to become the first prime minister of the new Nepal republic, the Indian establishment could have, perhaps, used a little more imagination to make his first India trip a more memorable one. As it is, Prachanda’s own colourful character as well as the historical moment to which he belongs, makes him a subject worthy of psychoanalysis as well as the keen eye of a photographer in the class of Henri Cartier-Bresson.
In his sharply tailored suits and with supreme aplomb, Prachanda addressed gatherings as diverse as Indian businessmen to their money born and bureaucrats and politicians. He sat between Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s wife Gursharan Kaur at the PM’s banquet in his honour. He charmed Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president L. K. Advani by inviting him to visit Janakpur in Nepal, said to have been the birthplace of Sita in the Ramayana epic; this when the BJP had some years ago announced that Nepal should remain a “Hindu rashtra” or state, with a King at its helm.
But the Indian establishment never once allowed itself to undo the stultifying foreign office-mandated protocol that it has either inherited from the British or itself written into stone. Prachanda, mobbed by TV cameras wherever he went, never became a star. He didn’t get a joint press conference with the Prime Minister, nor a full ceremonial reception at Rashtrapati Bhawan, with a parade and the 61st Cavalry in attendance. Foreign office diplomats can argue till the cows come home that all of the above is only applicable to a “state visit”, given to a head of state, such as a President/King/Queen. And that Prachanda as prime minister qualified only for an “official visit,” bereft of all those trappings.
Unfortunately, Delhi lost the opportunity to rise above all that man-made rigour, throw protocol to the winds and embrace Prachanda as the true leader of a new Nepal.
If it had, it would have wiped out all the lingering suspicion between Delhi and the new Kathmandu, on how the Indian government truly feels about Prachanda’s new republic. Instead, the Nepalese press is beginning to return to anti-India rhetoric and Nepal’s defence minister Ram Bahadur Thapa ‘Badal’ is believed to be travelling to China next week. It’s not as if India has no history with Prachanda and his co-revolutionaries. For most of 2005, Prachanda, along with Baburam Bhattarai (the new finance minister) walked the streets of Delhi, incognito, hiding from King Gyanendra’s men. Bhattarai was an old Jawaharlal Nehru University student, had kept his contacts alive, and began to meet Nationalist Congress Party leader D.P. Tripathi and Communist Party of India (Marxist) leaders Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury.
By November 2005, India was underwriting the 12-point understanding between the Maoists and Nepal’s political parties, which ultimately forced Gyanendra to accept the People’s Republic.
Prachanda’s India encounter this week was also replete with irony. For a man who ordered the killing of thousands of people, he laid a wreath at Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial. (That was part of protocol too.) He went out of his way to assuage Indian businessmen that the new Kathmandu was open for business, including Indian business. Trade and investment, especially in the hydropower sector, is the only way to economically revive the country, he said.
Businessman Binod Chaudhary, the only Nepali citizen on Forbes’ rich list, pointed out that both sides had agreed to explore four special economic zones, or SEZs, in the Terai region just inside the Nepal border, which will have the same privileges as SEZs in Indian hill states such as Uttarakhand.
Prachanda’s visit to Delhi brings back the old question: How should Delhi treat its smaller and economically weak neighbours? There are many answers to that, but one thought remains central. The rest of the world will never take India seriously until it is able to bring the rest of South Asia on its side. Going out of your way to be nice to old friends could be one way of doing it.
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Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor and writes on the intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics every week.
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