New Nepal PM sidesteps first foreign trip row

By Sudeshna Sarkar, IANS
Friday, February 11, 2011

KATHMANDU - Adroitly sidestepping the row dogging the first foreign trips of Nepal’s prime ministers, new premier Jhala Nath Khanal said his first destination abroad would be neither India nor China.

The 61-year-old communist leader, who was sworn in Sunday after winning the prime ministerial election with the surprise backing of the Maoist party, told the media that his first trip abroad would be to Cambodia on the invitation of the International Conference of Asian Political Parties (ICAPP), an organisation with its secretariat in Seoul.

This week, ICAPP announced that it had sent a three-member delegation to Nepal to invite the republic’s top political leaders to participate in a “peace consultation on Nepal” to be held in Phnom Penh.

It said the chiefs of Nepal’s three major political parties had said they would be free to attend the conference in the fourth week of February.

Traditionally, Nepal’s new prime ministers used to visit India first with the subcontinent being the Himalayan republic’s largest trade partner and the most influential neighbour.

In 2008, when the former Maoist guerrillas came to power for the first time, their chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda chose to break away from the tradition by making China, Nepal’s northern neighbour, his first port of call.

Though Prachanda said it was an informal visit mainly to attend the conclusion of the 2008 Olympic Games hosted by Beijing, he now attributes the fall of his government in 2009 due to India’s anger at being bypassed.

Prachanda was succeeded by communist leader Madhav Kumar Nepal, who avoided ruffling Beijing’s feathers by first heading for an unusual destination - Cairo.

The 15th Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in the Egyptian capital in 2010 gave Nepal the opportunity to sidestep the controversy.

But a row is certain to follow Khanal even if he heads for Cambodia.

Still unable to name a full cabinet and failing to even allocate portfolios to the three ministers in the mini cabinet, Khanal may not be able to take time off for a junket anytime soon.

The Maoists, his former allies, refused to join his government over a power-sharing row and now have warned that they could withdraw support. Nor has the prime minister been able to rope in any other party in his cabinet.

He is also under acute public disapproval for his opportunistic alliance with the Maoists and his maiden address to parliament Thursday virtually went unnoticed.

Khanal, the third prime minister in as many years, said his government would strive to promulgate a new constitution and address corruption, the culture of impunity and the mounting power crisis, which has resulted in a 14-hour power outage daily.

But the assurances rang hollow especially after his government failed to prevent Bhim Rawal, who was home minister in the earlier government, from going off on a junket to Switzerland to attend a human rights conference though the invite was intended for an incumbent minister.

His government would also maintain a balanced relationship with neighbouring countries, Khanal said.

That too remains to be seen with New Delhi concerned at the secret pact that Khanal signed with the Maoists to win the election.

The pact, now flayed by Khanal’s own party as well as other major parties, promises to allow the Maoists to rule by turns and establish a separate security force for the Maoists’ guerrilla army.

Filed under: Diplomacy

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