Myriad challenges facing new Nepal PM Baburam Bhattarai

Baburam Bhattarai Dr Bhattarai has much to deal with in his in-box

A communist ideologue, a trained architect and a taciturn politician, Baburam Bhattarai is one of the three vice-chairmen of the Maoist party of Nepal - otherwise known as the Unified Communist Party of Nepal - Maoists.

Before being sworn in on Monday as the fourth prime minister in as many years since the election of the Constituent Assembly (CA), Dr Bhattarai only had one stint in the government - as the finance minister during the prime ministerial tenure of his party chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, or Prachanda.

The sometimes fraught relationship between the two men looks set to define future Nepalese politics.

Born in a remote village in central Nepal in 1954, Dr Bhattarai is known for his academic excellence.

He once topped the country-wide high school and college level examinations.

An alumnus of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) of India, where in 1986 he earned his PhD in underdevelopment and the regional structure of Nepal, Dr Bhattarai graduated from Punjab University, Chandigarh and studied for a masters in the School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi.

His long academic association with India has meant that for years he has struggled to shrug off the tag of being "pro-Indian" - a description that has even been attached to him from within his own party and from Prachanda, his party boss.

Impressive

For someone who started his politics by organising Nepali students in India during his student days, the political career of Dr Bhattarai has followed an impressive trajectory.

Prachanda (left) with Dr Bhattarai The relationship with Prachanda (left) will be key to Dr Bhattarai's success as PM

But it has been no easy climb to the top. He was forced to go underground for a decade after his party declared a "people's war" in 1996.

During the subsequent armed revolt, Dr Bhattarai was the public face of the Maoists - all the more so because Prachanda's photograph was seldom publicly shown before the party stopped its armed insurrection. Dr Bhattarai's was the only widely known Maoist face.

He was one of the lead negotiators of the Maoists before and after the people's movement of 2006 that overthrew the monarchy in Nepal.

In the election of the CA in April 2008, Dr Bhattarai set a record for bagging the most number of votes and for winning by the largest margin.

In the subsequent government led by Prachanda, his work as finance minister was praised in some quarters for his clean and able leadership.

As governments began to fall one after another, several opinion polls conducted by local media showed him as the favourite candidate for prime minister.

Challenges

Now that hope has been fulfilled, Dr Bhattarai faces numerous challenges all around.

A Guard of Honour for Dr Bhattarai at his swearing in on 29 August 2011 A key question will be the integration of former Maoist fighters into the army

The term of the CA is set to expire on Wednesday 31 August, before which his government will have to reach an agreement with other political parties to extend it.

It is widely believed that this time the extension will have to be the final one - which means in the coming few months the CA must either complete its task or face failure.

The second and third largest parties in parliament after the Maoists are the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal - Unified Marxist Leninist. They both have decided to sit in opposition.

Without their support he cannot get the two-thirds majority required to endorse any such extension.

Dr Bhattarai garnered his majority thanks to the support of smaller Madhesi parties who are based in the south of the country. But that backing appears tenuous at best.

Without broad-based support, he cannot expect to fulfil his top-most priorities - concluding the peace process through the effective integration and rehabilitation of Maoist combatants and writing a new constitution.

Currently, there are more than 19,000 Maoist former combatants in several cantonments across the country - their future is one of Nepal's most sensitive and most important political decisions.

More than that, analysts say Dr Bhattarai also faces significant challenges from his own party. He can expect stiff resistance from an influential camp of hardliners on the integration issue and on the formulation of the new constitution.

On top of all this is the question of his relationship with Prachanda which presently seems to lack the cordiality once enjoyed by the pair.

It has swung from sweet to sour to sweet. Only nine months ago, Dr Bhattarai was isolated in his party when Prachanda sided with hardliners advocating what they called a "people's revolt".

But months later, the chairman came to the side of his old buddy and supported the agenda of "peace and constitution first".

A month ago, Dr Bhattarai ganged up against Prachanda by drawing support, strangely, from the hardliners in demanding responsibilities be redistributed in the party.

It was as a result of this alliance that Prachanda reluctantly had to endorse Dr Bhattarai for prime minister.

But if he is unable to surmount the challenges before him, Dr Bhattarai's impeccable academic record may not be matched by his achievements on the political front.

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