Will Nepal's PM Improve Ties with India?

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Manish Swarup / AP

Nepal's Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, left, poses with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh before a meeting in New Delhi on Oct. 21, 2011

Nepal's Baburam Bhattarai wrapped up a four-day visit to India on Sunday, capping his first foreign trip as Prime Minister by signing three key pacts. The Maoist leader's high-profile tour is widely seen as an attempt to revitalize his country's ties with New Delhi. Though the neighbors have enjoyed decades of friendly relations, their bilateral links have frayed of late, as anti-Indian sentiment bubbled in Nepal and India fretted over the Maoist-led country's blossoming ties to China.

Nepal's Maoists fought a decade-long war against the Nepalese monarchy and went on to form the country's first full-fledged democratic government. Since they took power in 2008, however, the country has been locked in a protracted political crisis. They've struggled to revive the stalled peace process and have yet to pass a new constitution. Jockeying between India and China has only complicated the country's complex domestic political scene.

Prime Minister Bhattarai's first task is to convince New Delhi that his government is committed to multiparty democracy, the conclusion of the peace process and the reintegration of 19,000 former rebels into the Nepali mainstream. India has close ties to the country's two main opposition parties, the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist Leninist, and could help convince them to join the coalition and, eventually, get the peace process back on track.

India may indeed back Bhattarai. Since 2008, New Delhi has watched warily as anti-Indian sentiment took hold next door. They see Bhattarai as a moderate Maoist, a counterweight to the hard-line figures they've opposed. "New Delhi wants to promote and support him as then there is less chance of revival of armed struggle in Nepal," says Nihar Nayak, an expert with the Delhi-based think tank, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. "Bhattarai [passes] a clear message to New Delhi that the Maoists are trying to change themselves from a radical to a moderate group."

He is also trying to ease India's fears on China. In 2008, Nepal's first Maoist Prime Minister, Prachanda, broke tradition — and angered Indian officials — by opting to visit China, not India, on his first foreign trip. "When the Maoists came to power, they had a mandate to bring about changes that they wanted without any kind of breaks being put on them," says K.V. Rajan, former Indian ambassador to Nepal. The Maoists "went headlong in an embrace with China, which completely ended India's special relationship with Nepal." Indeed, during Prachanda's tenure, 12 high-level Chinese delegations, including two military teams, reportedly visited Nepal.

Bhattarai sought to ease Indian minds ahead of his visit. "Nepal is sandwiched between two huge states of India and China. But we are virtually India-locked, as we have an open border on three sides," he wrote in an editorial for the Hindu. "Most of our socio-economic interactions take place with India. Two-thirds of our annual trade is with India, while only 10% is with China." It's a message he reiterated this weekend in New Delhi. When warning of divisive influences, he said India and Nepal share the same destiny and must stay united.

India welcomed Bhattarai, but with a hint of caution. At an official banquet on Friday evening, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, "Nepal is passing through a crucial phase in its quest for peace, stability and multiparty democracy," but noted that there should be no "foreign interference" in the process.

Ultimately, analysts say, it must be Nepal, not India or China, that ends the political stalemate. "India can play a very positive and permanent role to resolve the political deadlock in Nepal," explains the executive director of the Kathmandu-based Institute of Foreign Affairs, Tika Jung Thapa. "But unless Bhattarai has the power within his own party to get these implemented, the significance of his visit will be lost."