Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai is in New Delhi this week for the first time as head of government. The sights and sounds of the Indian capital will be familiar to him, having done his PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and spent most of the war years in and out of Noida. The Indian media has been gushing about Bhattarai being one of their own ever since he was elected nearly two months ago.
Bhattarai's advisers have warned the press not to seek dramatic breakthroughs on issues like the Indo-Nepal Treaty, regulating the border, or water deals. He doesn't have a choice since he heads a shaky coalition, and party colleagues are itching to pull the rug from under him.
New Delhi has decided that it can do business with Bhattarai, but it should also be realistic enough to know that whatever is agreed in New Delhi the prime minister will find it difficult to sell to his own party, let alone to the opposition. As part of his strategy to undermine his rival, Pushpa Kamal Dahal has hung an albatross around Bhattarai's neck by publicly calling him an Indian lackey.
That said, Bhattarai should try to take his visit beyond symbolism. Pomp and ceremony will not redress our yawning balance of payments deficit with India. It is important to know what is important to Delhi, and try to get from them what is important to us. Too often in the past, Nepali officialdom has been so insecure about India, and so sure that we will get bullied, that we have stonewalled.
Lately, through various channels, the New Delhi establishment has let us know that its primary concern is "security". This includes the gamut of issues from infiltration of terrorists and underworld criminals across the open border, to extradition, allowing air marshals in flights and controlling fake Indian currency. So far, fears of backlash have held back Nepal's political leaders from agreeing to anything that would erode our sovereign rights. This is the same misplaced nationalism that produced that ridiculous airport ramp 50 cm above the tarmac, just to prove that Indian security wasn't frisking passengers on Nepali territory.
It's time to transcend such hollow symbolism and address the real issues that affect our nationalism and sovereignty: the growing trade deficit with India, the fact that two million Nepalis are working in India, the huge lines in Pokhara of recruits wishing to join the Indian Army, and the paralyzing disunity among Kathmandu rulers that is undermining our national interest.
Indian investors have pulled out, and those still here are being harassed by national and local extortionists. Bhattarai's party says it wants to renegotiate 14 hydropower projects with Indian investors that were approved by the all-party government in 2007-8. How is the prime minister going to assure them that it's not a case of his party wanting its cut?
On the Indian side, we see a new willingness to engage with the Maoists and a realisation that the past policy of open intervention was counterproductive. A stable Nepal is in India's national interest, keeping Nepal politically weak and economically backward will prolong the instability.
Perhaps the most important message Indian leaders can give Baburam Bhattarai is something he doesn't seem to have learnt at JNU: that there is no alternative to democracy, pluralism, rule of law and non-violent politics.
Baburam returns to Delhi, Chalo Dilli by JYOTI MALHOTRA