Winds of change greet Shivshankar Menon in Nepal

June 20th, 2009 - 11:16 am ICT by IANS  

By Sudeshna Sarkar
Kathmandu, June 20 (IANS) Indian foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon’s much awaited two-day visit to Nepal to bail out the jeopardised peace process began Saturday amidst new winds of change blowing through the fledgling republic.

Menon’s arrival coincides with the Nepali Congress (NC), one of Nepal’s oldest and biggest parties as well as the closest to the Indian establishment, holding a critical internal election after seven years to seek a change in the leadership of its party in parliament.

For decades, the NC had been synonymous with the Koiralas, considered the Gandhi family of Nepal, that gave the country three prime ministers.

While B.P. Koirala was the first elected prime minister of Nepal, after his death his younger brother Girija Prasad Koirala became the leader of the party, exercising absolute control since 1996.

The younger Koirala, a five-time prime minister and the architect of the peace process that in 2006 saw the end of Maoist insurgency and demolition of Nepal’s monarchy, is expected to hand over the baton to a younger leader after Saturday’s election.

There are four contenders for the post of president of the parliamentary party and the winner will be Nepal’s prime minister in waiting.

Koirala’s cousin and right-hand Sushil Koirala is in the fray, along with former Koirala confidant and deputy prime minister Ram Chandra Poudel, lawmaker Suprabha Ghimire, the only woman in the contest, and former premier Sher Bahadur Deuba.

“It’s going to be a fight between Poudel and Deuba,” said NC vice-president Prakash Man Singh. “The election indicates that Koirala, who was chosen ad hoc leader of the parliamentary party, would be gradually retiring from active politics due to failing health.”

The new leader would have a major role to play in the drafting of the new constitution, which is to be ready by May 2010, as he would lead the second-largest party in the 601-member parliament with 114 MPs.

If the new and still shaky-coalition government of Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal collapses, the NC would be the next choice to head the new government and its parliamentary leader the next premier.

Menon’s arrival also comes at a time the Maoists, now out of government and blaming India for the debacle, are set on a fresh collision course with the new government.

The politburo of the party, that began chalking out its fresh strategy, has called fresh protests from Friday over the new government’s decision to revoke an earlier order by their government to sack Army Chief General Rookmangud Katawal.

The Maoists have also decided to press for a presidential form of government in the new constitution, scrapping the post of prime minister to prevent the existence of a parallel source of power.

India is bound to disapprove of the Maoist-recommended form of government, preferring a system like its own in which the president is a constitutional figure while the elected prime minister rules the country.

All eyes would be on Menon also to see if he can mediate in the dispute between the new government and the Terai parties, who are known to be close to India.

Three Terai parties - the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum, Terai Madhes Loktantrik Party and Sadbhavana Party - have held up the full-fledged expansion of the cabinet, demanding major ministries.

The Forum has also split over the fight, with the dissident faction now opposing the government.

The Indian envoy’s visit is expected to see a resolution of the Terai deadlock.

Menon, accompanied by Satish Mehta, joint secretary (north) in India’s external affairs ministry, kicks off his Nepal visit with a meeting with the prime minister followed by separate talks with Koirala, President Ram Baran Yadav and Maoist supremo Prachanda.

On Sunday, he will also meet Deputy PM Bijay Gachhadar, the lone member from the Forum in the cabinet, Home Minster Bhim Rawal, Foreign Minister Sujata Koirala and Defence Minister Bidya Bhandari.

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