When Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba alighted in Delhi with wife Arzu, son Jaiveer Singh and five ministers in tow, the formal agenda seemed rather sparse for a four day 'working visit'.
Even though everyone's focus was on India's role vis-?-vis the Maoist insurgency, the agreements signed Thursday were on relatively mundane subjects like sharing weather reports, the Raxaul to Amlekhganj pipeline and cultural exchanges.
Deuba had told the press before his departure from Kathmandu
that resolving the Maoist problem was his "prime agenda". But there is no one in the 72-member all-male delegation from the home or defence ministries. The prime minister is holding the cards close to his chest, indicating either poor preparation (the suspicion of many) or confidence to go it alone with the Indian leaders.
Some in the Kathmandu cognoscenti had hoped Deuba would use his trip to pressurise New Delhi into agreeing to UN good offices vis-?-vis the Maoist issue. But Minister for State for Foreign Affairs Prakash Sharan Mahat ruled it out. "This is an internal problem of Nepal which can be tackled without the help of third parties," he said.
Mahat is also quick to quash speculation that Deuba might give unreasonable concessions to India on sensitive matters, including those which would activate Article 126 of the Constitution for treaties on natural resources that require two-thirds majority of parliament. He added there was no plan to sign an extradition treaty where questions hinge on third-country nationals.
The visit started on a sour note even as Deuba was on his way to Delhi, with news that Indian Oil Corporation was peremptorily hitting Nepal with a petroleum tax. "This was a shocking announcement, as we could never afford it," said the NOC Executive Chairman Upendra Koirala, also in the entourage. South Block rushed into damage control mode, and the first thing Foreign Minister Natwar Singh did when he met the Deuba Thursday was to reassure him on that score. Joint Secretary Ranjit Ray told us: "It was a miscommunication and status quo ante has been restored on Nepal's ability to buy its oil from the Raxaul depot."
Apart from this muddle, there remains the question of why Deuba is in Delhi for four full days with only one official meeting plus lunch (and no banquet) with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Thursday. One senior Indian official was reported to have said this was a "most unwanted" visit by a Nepali prime minister, but HMG had insisted on it. Ambassador Karna Dhoj Adhikari pooh-phooed this: "It is an official trip at the inivitation of the Indian prime minister. Everything is as it should be."
A New Delhi media outlet reported Deuba was in Delhi to 'seek legitimacy and support', a point of view probably based on talk in Kathmandu about how Deuba pipped King Gyanendra to the post by visiting New Delhi first.
Discussions in closed-door meetings between Deuba and Manmohan Singh, Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Home Minister Shivraj Patil have reportedly centred on the Maoists. The dramatic anti-Indian Maoist stance after their recent plenum has added to the challenge for New Delhi. A hardline rebel faction seems to have pushed through the new aggressive posture, lambasting the 'reactionary Indian ruling class' for its 'expansionist and interventionist' designs on Nepal. This either reflects the Maoists' ability now to be based entirely within Nepal, and/or anger at India for the capture of senior Maoists.
As one Indian analyst put it: "Given the state of political flux in the kingdom, India is willy nilly forced to support the king and the army to tackle the Maoists. We know this will hurt democracy in the long run, but there is little India can do unless political parties band together and offer a solution."