China is Nepal’s new best friend

By SANJAY KAPOOR–

Sher Bahadur Deuba has become the 11th Prime Minister of Nepal after Prachanda resigned on May 24 — respecting a power-sharing agreement that India had quietly brokered between the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) last year. Burmese State Counselor Aung San Suu Ki seemed to be as bewildered as many in the subcontinent when she observed some time ago that she had never come across a country with so many ex-PMs as in Nepal.

These rapid changes were a manifestation of not just the social and political churn that the tiny Himalayan nation has been experiencing after the end of Rajshahi, but also due to the aggressive jostling for influence by India and China.

What is intensifying this contestation is China’s attempts to call the shots in Nepal’s politics and India’s attempts to use its shared religion and ethnicity to counter that.

For the past three years, ever since the BJP came to power in Delhi, there has been a renewed attempt by the RSS and its affiliates to spread Hindu consciousness in the turbulent plains of Nepal and the hills.

Cometh Yogi

What has really given impetus to these moves has been the elevation of Yogi Adityanath, head priest of Gorakhnath temple as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. The Gorakhnath temple is highly revered in Nepal and during the days of monarchy, the head priest would be placed on a higher pedestal than the King himself.

The coins of that period would also have images of Gorakhnath temple on them. The Yogi had been visiting Nepal periodically and his speech last year at the World Hindu Conference in Kathmandu was particularly illustrative of what the young monk thought of the country’s decision to go secular. He had said that Nepal was losing its identity, which had evolved over the years due to Nepal’s Hindu Kings and their respect for the Gorakhnath temple. He had asserted that Nepal would prosper under this unified identity.

It was apparent that the decision of the Nepalese government to declare itself as a secular nation in their constitution left Yogi and many in the Sangh Parivar deeply distressed.

The Indian government had dispatched Foreign Secretary Jaishankar to convince the Nepalese government against adopting secularism as its guiding principle before the constitution was promulgated.

No to Modi

Pro-Indian PM, Sushi Koirala, sensing the mood in the constituent assembly and outside, had refused to oblige.

His government also denied permission for PM Modi to address a public meeting at Janakpur from where he was to formally announce a four-lane highway to connect it with the Lord Rama’s birthplace, Ayodhya.

“Modi was treated shabbily by Nepalese leaders. If they had been as large hearted as Modi was during his first two visits to Kathmandu then the ties between the two countries would have been in a different orbit,” claimed a Nepalese businessman who has business interests in both the countries.

These two episodes in some ways represented a rupture of ties between the two countries which was further aggravated by the botched up assistance provided during the monster earthquake and later by a long blockade by the people of the plains or Madheshis of the road route that ferried fuel and other goods from India to land locked Nepal.

The resentment of ordinary Nepalese reached feverish levels due to this blockade by the Madheshis that were demanding inclusion and further deepening of constitution’s federal character. The antagonism between the Madheshis and people of the hills was helped by Nepali PM and leader of Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxists and Leninists) KP Sharma Oli.

He sensed the mood against New Delhi post-earthquake and blockade, and created spaces for China to interfere more in its politics and economy. During the blockade, Chinese ended the Indian monopoly to supply fuel to Nepal when they sent their tankers through Tibet.

They also tried to work towards forging left unity by trying to get Oli and his successor, Pushpa Kamal Dahal or Prachanda to work together. This effort did not succeed as India still enjoys great influence in Nepalese politics and it managed to cobble together an alliance of Prachanda-led CPN (Maoist centre) and the Nepali Congress to pull down Oli.

New chinks

On May 24, Prachanda, as part of the power-sharing agreement resigned and paved the way for the new PM who will oversee the next round of local elections on June 14. Prachanda, who displayed greater maturity than in his earlier stint, brought in economic stability to his country that saw the growth rate rise to 6.9 per cent.

He also aligned Nepal closer to China by joining the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). He also gave permission to China to pick the 16 districts that it wanted to develop as part of its poverty alleviation programme.

This freedom was earlier reserved for India, but now politicians in Kathmandu talk openly about maintaining equidistance from the two big neighbours on such matters.

This does not mean that India and China are comfortable with Nepal playing both sides and maximising its self-interest. Though Prachanda, after he demitted office, is trying to show that he is no stooge of New Delhi, Indian government is drawing comfort from the fact that the alliance that it supports has gained in strength.

The Nepali Congress has done well in the first round and could pip Oli’s CPN ( UML) after the second round too.

The parliament elections that take place early next year will test how much of sway Adityanath and the Sangh Parivar have in this deeply religious country to counter the fast-growing Chinese influence.

The writer is the editor of Hardnews, India. 

(This article was originally published in The Hindu Business Line of India on June 13, 2017)

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