India-educated Baburam Bhattarai is the new prime minister of Nepal, and the 35th in the nation’s history. His appointment has come at a crucial time, with two vital tasks facing the nation: a peace process and the drafting of a constitution. Both issues remain unresolved, despite the latest three-month extension given to the Constituent Assembly, which expires today.
An amicable solution acceptable to all stakeholders has remained elusive for Nepal’s past three governments in as many years. Bhattarai, who heads the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (UCPN (M)) squared off against Ram Chandra Paudel of the Nepali Congress. It was a decisive victory, with the election being concluded in the first round – a far cry from the tortuous 17 rounds of the last election. Bhattarai owes his ascendance to the premiership to a last-minute, four-point deal between the UCPN (M) and the United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF), and he will now have to reach out to all political parties to take the unfinished national agenda to its logical conclusion.
Even more responsibility rests with the UCPN (M) now that the party’s candidate has become the prime minister. It’s against this backdrop that the UCPN (M)’s proposals put forward on August 25 for fast-tracking the peace process, and integration and rehabilitation of the former Maoist combatants, assume all the more significance.
The Maoists have promised the return of lands seized by them during the insurgency, the withdrawal of all court cases from during the Maoists’ armed struggle, and inclusive growth and governance. A tricky issue for Bhattarai will be the demand of disparate Madhesi groups for a single ‘Madhesi State,’ which the UCPN (M) has apparently conceded. Groups like the Tharuhat and Janajati are likely to oppose the move.
Bhattarai’s elevation has come at a time when the support base of the Maoists’ top leader, Pushpa Kumar Dahal, also known as Prachanda, has rapidly shrunk. Also significant, Bhattarai is widely seen as pro-India, while Prachanda is known to be closer to China. The Indian foreign policy establishment will therefore likely be emboldened by Bhattarai’s appointment.