Wrapped up the substantive leg of his five-day India visit, Nepal’s three-time Prime Minister and Nepali Congress (NC) senior leader, Sher Bahadur Deuba, has rubbished the perception that there was widespread ‘anti-India sentiment’ in Nepal. For its part, India, which laid out the red carpet for Mr. Deuba, has sent a clear signal of support to ‘democratic forces’ and asked NC to get its act together.
“Nepal has an open border with India. Many Nepalis, particularly Hindus, come to India for pilgrimage. Nepalis come here to study. And everyone in Nepal, including my wife, watches Hindi films," said Mr. Deuba at an interaction with reporters at the Press Club of India in the capital. He added that India has had a role in all major political changes in Nepal — in 1951, 1990, and in 2005 when parties and Maoists signed an understanding in Delhi.
His remarks come at a time when sections of the NC, considered a traditional ally of India, have engaged in rhetoric against Indian ‘interventionism’. The party’s president, Sushil Koirala, is known to harbour resentment against India for what he perceives as Delhi’s unwillingness to support him to become Prime Minister earlier this year, though it was former PM Baburam Bhattarai and the Madhesi parties who rejected his name.
India’s key message was that Nepal must hold ‘elections by November 2013’ in order to consolidate ‘multi-party democracy and republican system’. For this purpose, ‘Nepal’s president, the interim election government and parties’ had to work together. “Everyone, from top to bottom in the Indian establishment, wants us to have elections. Any doubt in this regard is now dispelled”, said a Nepali political source.
In what could be seen as an effort to ‘balance’ the Maoist strength in Nepali polity, India also conveyed to Mr. Deuba the ‘need for democratic and moderate forces to maintain unity’. NC, the former PM was told, ‘must bear responsibility of taking forward the democratic process in Nepal’ as it was the ‘bulwark of democracy’. Fractured between Mr. Koirala and Mr. Deuba’s factions, India also asked NC to ‘remain united, and not publicly voice their intra-party differences in this crucial phase of democratic transition’.
At the same time, Delhi alerted the NC to rising aspirations of marginalised groups. Interlocutors are understood to have told the former NC PM that it was ‘necessary to work with other democratic forces for inclusive political and social change’. Newer political groups fighting for inclusion have closer ties the Maoists, and the NC is seen as upholding ‘status quo’. NC has been lobbying with India to use its leverage with Madhesi parties to switch sides, while India has reiterated its message that the onus lies on NC to reach out and work with other forces.
But Mr Deuba was ‘very happy’ with the reception he got in New Delhi. He met PM Manmohan Singh, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma, National Security Advisor Shiv Shanker Menon, and leaders from other political parties.
The meeting with Ms. Gandhi, who was accompanied by senior leader Karan Singh and Mr. Sharma, assumes significance as she had not met two earlier Maoist visitors from Nepal — Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal last month, and former PM Baburam Bhattarai in October 2011.
When asked about whether any meaning could be read in this, a senior Indian official source told The Hindu, “It indicates that the Congress party and the Nepali Congress have age-old strong ties, and those relations are still given high priority. The UPA chair is not a public employee and is free to choose who she meets.” Ms. Gandhi had also met NC president, Mr. Koirala, when he visited Delhi in 2011.
This article has been edited to correct a factual error.