Will Nepal drift away from India?

By Mahmood Hasan (18 December 2017) –  Nepal’s journey towards democracy crossed another milestone when the last phase of federal legislative elections was completed on December 7, 2017. We have to wait and see whether the new Constitution, adopted after the end of the civil war and abolition of the monarchy, will bring stability to the Himalayan republic; it will have to face a test of its acceptability and effectiveness. Results of the polls will take a few weeks because of the complex process of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system and proportional representation (PR). The new government is expected to be formed in mid-January 2018.

According to its 2015 Constitution the Federal Parliament of Nepal has two chambers. The lower house has 275 members and the upper house has only 59 members. Election to the lower house of 275 seats takes place in two ways—165 seats by the FPTP process and the remaining 110 seats by PR. Some 15.4 million Nepalese voters went to the polls to elect the federal parliament and 550 members for the seven provincial assemblies. Elections to 735 local bodies, which constitute the lowest rung of the three-tier governance structure, have already been completed.

The polity in Nepal is mainly divided into three main streams, leading to a triangular competition among the Left parties, the centre-right Nepali Congress and the southern regional Madhes-based parties. After the formation of the new government, political alignment will no doubt give way to leftist and rightist political forces.

Politically, Nepal perceptibly leaned towards leftist political parties during the elections of 2008 and 2013. The two major leftist parties—CPN (UML) led by KPS Oli, and CPN (MC) led by PK Dahal—formed an alliance before this election. The leaders of these parties said that they will formally merge after the election. The popularity of the alliance is due to strong anti-India sentiments, better election management and the emergence of Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli as an upright nationalist leader.

On the other hand, Nepali Congress (NC), the oldest centre-right party, is in doldrums. It has neither a clear agenda nor any effective leader. Besides, the general perception is that it is pro-India, particularly due to its role during the six-month long blockade of Nepal. Current PM Sher Bahadur Deuba (NC) could not deliver on the rehabilitation of the victims of the earthquake of April 2015, which has been a major national issue. With the departure of MC from the current coalition, Deuba failed to strengthen Congress’ bastion with alliances with other parties.

Preliminary FPTP results indicate that the Left alliance is leading (ahead of NC) substantially in seat tally. As of December 16, the alliance has bagged 117 seats out of 165; NC has garnered only 21 seats under FPTP. It appears that the Left alliance will form the next government under KP Sharma Oli.

Delhi, backing Deuba’s NC, is shocked and dismayed. China definitely is happy, as some observers say that it was Beijing that brought the two Left parties together. Nepal, sandwiched between these two powerful neighbours, China in the north and India in the south, has long been a playground for Delhi and Beijing to extend their influence in their strategic backyard.

Delhi is particularly worried that the new government will sustain for five years and may terminate the India-Nepal Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1950, as stated in UML’s manifesto. Narendra Modi’s muscular diplomacy towards smaller neighbours has alienated Nepal. India’s policy to dominate Nepal has resulted in deep mistrust among the ruling upper class Hindus in Kathmandu. To the Nepalese in general India has become an overbearing neighbour.

Leftist leaders in Kathmandu have many complaints against Delhi. India’s six-month-long unofficial blockade of Nepal, which began in September 2015 and left Nepal’s economy devastated, is the most serious indictment against Delhi. The blockade came as Delhi was concerned about the lack of protection of the rights of ethnic Madhesis, people of Indian ancestry living in the Terai, in Nepal’s Constitution. KP Oli (PM at that time) had a difficult relationship with Delhi. However, Oli’s firm stance against Delhi’s blockade and refusal to amend the Constitution improved his image among the Nepalese.

During those difficult times, PM Oli, after a visit to Delhi in February 2016, visited Beijing in March 2016. And to reduce Nepal’s dependence on India, Oli signed several agreements related to trade and transit with China.

Besides, Delhi’s contacts with royalist camps were an issue of concern among Nepalese democratic forces. BJP’s Hindutva propagandists probably want Nepal to become a “Hindu Rashtra” rather than a secular state. Nepal under the monarchy was a Hindu kingdom, but the new Constitution adopted the principles of secular democracy, which the leftist parties strongly supported to resist any move to restore the monarchy.

Beijing no doubt will be happy about the Left alliance forming a new government. Beijing would hope that the government speeds up the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects and restores the USD 2.5 billion 1200 MW Budhi Gandaki hydropower project, which was scrapped by Deuba government last November, as Delhi was unhappy with it.

One would have to wait and see how stable the new government will turn out to be. Primarily because MC leader Dahal has exited coalitions in the past; he has formed the alliance to win more seats (although he currently shares power with Nepali Congress and has major differences with Oli). It is political convenience and not moral principles that drive his party. Besides, Delhi is unlikely to sit still if the Left government of KP Oli leans too much towards Beijing.

However, it is unlikely that Oli will drift away from Delhi and move towards Beijing. He will have to maintain a balanced relationship with both capitals, primarily because Nepal cannot sustain without India, through which 65 percent of Nepal’s trade passes. Nepal under the new government will certainly not be pro-India or pro-China; it will be pro-Nepal. At least that is what the people of Nepal want.

Mahmood Hasan is a former ambassador and secretary of the Bangladesh government. This article first appeared in The Daily Star, Bangladesh.

 

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