New Delhi finds the Communist leader easy to rein in, despite his checkered past and numerous political flip-flops.
Nepal’s Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, known by his nom de guerre Prachanda, which loosely translates to “fierce” in English, chose India the destination of his inaugural foreign visit, as has every other Nepalese PM in what is now a long-standing tradition.
During his four-day trip to, which concludes on Saturday, Prachanda has stuck to the script that had New Delhi’s approval written all over it, even though India only rolled out the red carpet for him six months after he came to power.
Prachanda, 68, became Nepalese PM for the third time last December. He has previously held the post twice, in 2008-2009 and in 2016-2017. Each tenure lasted less than a year. His latest path to the coveted post was strewn with political chicanery. He double-crossed his pre-poll ally, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist), or CPN (UML), and sided with the rival Nepali Congress (NC) after the election results were declared. The move is believed to enjoy India’s blessing because of the NC’s age-old ties with the power elites in New Delhi.
The streets of Kathmandu — often a source of swirling rumors against ‘Big Brother’ India — have been abuzz since Prachanda’s volte-face after he deftly grabbed power for the third time. India has been accused by Nepal’s opposition parties, including the CPN (UML), of riding roughshod over the people’s mandate to install a government of its choice in a bid to keep its adversary China’s advances at bay.
Prachanda’s ploy to choose India as his first port of call is symptomatic of his opportunistic politics, because he needs India more than ever to remain in power. The Communist leader of the erstwhile Hindu kingdom is seen to have no compunction in setting aside his avowed pro-China tilt, for which he is known. Earlier, he had spurned Beijing’s invitation to attend the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) Annual Conference 2023, which was held in Hainan province in March.
He wants to keep India — Nepal’s largest trading partner — happy as the great game is being played out in the landlocked Himalayan nation. Political expediency has been the hallmark of his checkered career. For instance, his belligerent stand as an opposition leader and his fiery speeches on home turf about the revision of the 1950 Nepal-India Friendship Treaty — the cornerstone of bilateral ties — and resolution of thorny border disputes all appear to be a thing of the past.
His makeover stems from his bid to hold on to power by hook or crook. His Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) had managed to win only 32 seats in the 275-member lower house of Parliament, known as Pratinidhi Sabha, but deft maneuvering helped him outsmart the two larger parties, the NC and the CPN-UML who had a bigger popular mandate, to become the PM.
Prachanda’s pro-India overtures
The most plausible reason behind Prachanda’s newfound pro-India overtures can be traced to persistent US wooing of India. The Nepalese PM is acutely aware of Washington’s intentions.
The US sees India as a bulwark against a rising China. New Delhi wants to keep whoever is in power in Kathmandu in good standing to stymie Beijing’s advances and Prachanda wants to be a beneficiary of the global power play. Nepal is also fertile ground for Narendra Modi’s government to play the Hindu nationalism card in next year’s parliamentary elections, as communal politics is likely to take center stage amid growing polarization.
Prachanda ticks all the boxes, despite his party’s poor strength in Parliament. Modi sees in his Nepalese counterpart a politician who is willing to bend when asked in a bid to cling to power. It’s a win-win situation for both India and the US with Prachanda at the helm.
Prachanda played to the media gallery on Thursday during a joint press briefing with Modi, by hailing India’s role as a leading voice of the countries in the Global South. The canny politician has sensed India’s political pulse. On Friday, he visited Indore in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh and offered prayers at Mahakaleshwar, a revered Hindu shrine.
The optics is out of sync for a Communist leader, who considers the abolition of the monarchy after 237 years and ensuring the only Hindu kingdom in the world as his most enduring political legacy. His overtly religious gesture is music to the ears of Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which has been making inroads into Nepal and would return it to a Hindu monarchy.
Besides, in one fell swoop, the Indian government has managed to keep the CPN-UML, which has been openly veering towards China, out of the frame. New Delhi feels self-assured that it has sent a message to Beijing about who calls the shots in Kathmandu.
Lack of political ideology
Prachanda’s lack of political ideology, where power is the only elixir, guides his actions in the garb of ultra-nationalism. It turned out to be a useful stick for India to beat him with. The Maoist leader was a proponent of the bloody People’s War in Nepal, whose scars are yet to heal in a Hindu-majority nation torn asunder by caste politics, despite several attempts at reconciliation under the aegis of the United Nations. He himself had gone underground in 1996, as the civil war raged on for the next decade.
Prachanda was holed up in safe houses in India while over 13,000 of his compatriots perished in the civil war. The strife culminated in the last king of Nepal, Gyanendra Shah, bowing to the street protest and relinquishing his absolute powers and throne in 2008. As the Maoist comandante, Prachanda’s outrageous demands, such as the abrogation of the 1950 Nepal-India Friendship Treaty, blanket bans on Indian cinema and Indian vehicles, were some of the radical ideas that fell flat when his double standards hit home.
His trenchant criticism and opposition to all things India unraveled later, according to Indian intelligence sources. He had struck a secret pact with the then Indian government to operate from Nepal’s biggest southern neighbor.
The Communist ideologue is seen as the fountainhead of the political instability in Nepal that has shackled its economy. It is still one of the 46 least developed countries in the world, having made several false starts, and is now only predicted to improve its unenviable rating by 2026.
Why is Nepal key to India?
The open borders between India and Nepal coupled with long-standing civilizational people-to-people ties are some of the unique features between the two countries. The Terai region that straddles the border between the two South Asian nations is one of the poorest in the world and has become an epicenter for Islamic terrorism, who are waging a war against New Delhi.
Nepal is also the seventh-biggest remittance-sending country for India, which has been on New Delhi’s radar since the Modi regime revived the Neighborhood First policy in 2014. New Delhi has been on Kathmandu’s speed dial for any sort of assistance, including dealing with the aftermath of the devastating 2015 earthquake, energy and security cooperation, infrastructure development and cultural exchanges.
During a joint statement between the two leaders on Thursday, Modi exuded optimism about the mutual benefits of India-Nepal relations.
“I remember… nine years ago, in 2014, I made my first visit to Nepal. At that time I had given a “HIT” formula for India-Nepal relations – Highways, I-ways, and Trans-ways. I said we will establish such contacts that our borders do not become barriers. Today, the Nepalese PM and I have taken many important decisions to make our partnership a super HIT,” Modi said. “We will continue to strive to take India-Nepal ties to Himalayan heights,” he added.
Prachanda, who extended a “cordial invitation” to Modi to visit Nepal added, “This is my fourth visit to India. The relationship between India and Nepal is age-old. Today we discussed steps to strengthen the ties between both nations. We also jointly launched many ground-breaking projects,” he added.
Both leaders signed key agreements that include new rail links to increase physical connectivity and a long-term deal expected to strengthen the electricity-generating sectors of each country. They also virtually inaugurated integrated check posts (ICPs) at Rupaidiha in India and Nepalgunj in Nepal. Similarly, both PMs flagged off a cargo train from Bihar to Nepal. Prachanda also discussed the opening of more air travel routes in Nepal.
Plans are afoot to expedite tourism projects related to the Ramayana railway Circuit, many of which are located in Nepal. The route includes some of the sites associated with the Indian epic ‘Ramayana’, which straddles both countries and exemplifies ancient mutual religious and cultural ties.
Can India depend on Prachanda?
India’s Nepal policy has been a guessing game through the years, where New Delhi seldom puts its eggs in one basket. Though Prachanda’s government appears stable because of a comfortable majority in Parliament, the PM is facing severe economic challenges amid hyperinflation and public discontent is rising. The NC, as a coalition partner, could pull the plug should Prachanda falter on his promise of good governance. Nothing is off the table, as the NC and the CPN (UML) could come together and grab power by removing Prachanda. India is keeping an ear to the ground as China seeks an opportunity to upstage New Delhi.
In such a fluid scenario, India is unlikely to keep its hotline going only with Prachanda. His political somersaults are all too well known and could throw the tiny Himalayan nation into further political uncertainty and chaos.
What does India want?
India is aware of Prachanda’s murky past. He was a rebel leader, who stands accused of grave human rights abuses, including the recruitment of child soldiers. He has been consistently blamed for the derailment of “transitional justice” that seeks accountability for all kinds of criminal activities.
Prachanda suits India’s design as he is the most malleable Nepalese leader compared to the CPN (UML)’s Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli or Sher Bahadur Deuba of the NC. He can be the best vehicle should India want to make Nepal its appendage and have the nation beholden to New Delhi’s largesse.
Nepal is integral to creating an “Akhand Bharat”, or an undivided India. The plan was on display in the form of a mural on May 28, when Modi inaugurated the new Parliament building that depicted ancient sites such as Lumbini, Biratnagar and Kapilvastu, all in Nepal, as part of India. The depiction kicked off a storm of protests in Nepal ahead of Prachanda’s visit to India on May 31. However, Prachanda avoided taking up the “Akhand Bharat” issue with Modi.
Neither did he broach any of the issues that Kathmandu considers irritants to bilateral ties, including recruitment of Nepalese nationals for the Indian armed forces’ short-term enlistment scheme Agnipath, or the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) report on bilateral ties, which is likely to lead to a review of the 1950 India-Nepal Peace and Friendship Treaty. India’s foreign secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra confirmed during his media briefing that Prachanda did not bring up any of these contentious issues.
India is also mindful of the fact that Nepalese soil is not misused by arch-rival Pakistan, as has often has been the case in the past, for subversive activities against New Delhi.
The question for India is whether it should wait and watch Prachanda’s tenure disintegrate, as it did in the past, thanks to the vagaries of Nepal’s political instability? Or, should India remain invested in him as the fittest candidate to dance to New Delhi’s tune?
One thing, though, is for sure. He does not enjoy the mandate to make a call on issues that have far-reaching consequences for Nepal. History tells us that he has always put himself before his own poor and hapless people. And in the name of Communist and people’s rule, he has only displayed his naked lust for power.