India must handle Nepal with care

By Kalyani Shankar , 24 December, 2017 ) -While the world is moving towards the right, Nepal is leaning towards the left. This is the signal one gets from the recent elections where the Left combine won a comfortable majority. Nepal will soon have a Leftist government led by former Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli. The Left alliance bagged 116 seats out of a total 165 in the just-concluded parliamentary polls. The ruling centrist Nepali Congress has won just 21. Incumbent Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba failed to deliver and was quite unpopular. In the power sharing, and Oli would lead the government, the Chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Center (CPN-MC), Pushpa Kamal Dahal known as ‘Prachanda’, would be the chairman of the new Nepal Communist Party, formed after the merger of CPN-UML and CPN-MC.
India has no choice but to work with whoever comes to power in Nepal. Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Oli and other Nepal leaders to congratulate them recently. South Block came out with a customary statement saying, “India welcomes the conduct of Parliamentary elections and first ever Provincial elections in Nepal. We congratulate the Government and the people of Nepal. India has age-old, unique, time-tested ties of friendship with Nepal. We look forward to working with the next democratically elected Government in Nepal to advance our close and multifaceted partnership across all sectors and to support Nepal in its pursuit of peace, stability, economic prosperity and all round development.” Nepal experts in India only hope that this would be the beginning of a new Nepal policy as India has messed up its relations with the country. While Modi began with a lot of goodwill, subsequently the relations had become strained on the issues of its Constitution-making and the Madhesi protests.
New Delhi has been uncomfortable with Left leaning governments in the past. New Delhi did not have good relations with Oli when he was the PM from August 2015 to September 2016. Oli believed that New Delhi manipulated his ouster. During the Madhesi protest last September, the Madhesis blocked all supplies from India and a desperate Oli turned to China for help. A grateful Oli later continued to play the China card, which irked South Block.
Oli has many challenges before him. The first is power sharing. The CPN-UML and the CPN-MC had shared seats in a ratio of 60:40 before the elections. Both would now demand same proportion of power sharing in the government. Oli’s challenge will be to deal with the Maoist party either through power sharing or unification. Secondly Oli has the daunting task of changing India’s perception that he is pro-China and anti-India because he needs to keep both the giants happy. Thirdly, the concerns of the marginalised groups including the Madhesis and Tharus need to be addressed as none of the issues raised by them have gone away including the discrimination against the region. Fourthly even in running parliament, Oli may face a strong opposition if the Madhesis and the Nepali Congress come together. Fifthly, there are problems including meeting domestic requirements like energy, security and modernisation of security forces.
As well known Nepali author Kanak Mani Dixit writes, “The ride to democratic stability is bound to be bumpy, not least because the constitution – written by politicians rather than jurists and constitutionalists – is so ‘magnanimous’ that it will be a challenge to implement.”
Nepal has seen continuous turmoil in the past two decades and seen ten prime ministers in ten years. What it needs is stability, which is also in the interest of India and China. The Maoist insurgency, the frequent regime changes, a devastating earthquake in 2014 and problems in adoption of the new Constitution all contributed to the chaos. The decisive mandate to the Left combine gives hope that the new government may be stable. Also under the new constitution there cannot be any no-confidence motion for two years.
Many Nepal experts here believe that New Delhi has to engage with Kathmandu much more and should not needlessly be concerned about a probable pro-China tilt. India needs Nepal for its security and Kathmandu cannot ignore India. South Block also has to stop playing favourites and engage all those on the political spectrum. The other Nepal political parties do not believe that India plays fair with them. Secondly, both countries should make efforts to bridge the trust deficit. The younger generation of Nepalis resent that New Delhi has taken Nepal for granted. Thirdly, India should take note of the growing Chinese influence in the neighbourhood. For instance, Nepal is on board for China’s One Belt-One Road project. Sri Lanka has just handed over Hambantota port to the Chinese. Maldives has provided docking facilities for Chinese ships in the Indian Ocean. Both are also part of China’s maritime silk route. This cannot be ignored.
South Block should shed its old “Nepal is my backyard” attitude and begin a more solid relationship. Oli’s second term could well be the beginning of this era.
This article first appeared in The Statesman.

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