Nepal’s Left alliance – a conglomeration of former Maoists and Communists – is certain to form the next government in Kathmandu. The rival centrist Nepali Congress alliance of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, comprising Madhesi parties and former royalists, is not likely to pose much of a challenge. This means that after a change of 10 administrations in as many years, Nepal could finally get a stable government.
While this is good news for Nepal, which has been hobbled by corruption, poor economic growth and a breakdown in infrastructure following the 2015 earthquake, it is causing considerable disquiet in India. The likely return to power of former Nepal prime minister KP Oli, whose relations with New Delhi have been fraught and who is seen as close to China, suggests that there could be a shift in geo-strategic policy in the Himalayan nation. Nepal serves as a buffer between India and China but has always tilted towards India with whom it has an open border. In fact, New Delhi was quick off the mark when the devastating earthquake of 2015 struck, moving in men and material for help within 24 hours. Nepal is the only country whose citizens can serve in the Indian army. But much of the goodwill following the earthquake was frittered away by what was seen as India’s interference in internal Nepali politics when it seemingly imposed a blockade after expressing its displeasure over inadequate representation for certain communities, including the Madhesis, in the Himalayan country’s new constitution. The fact that the Left has gained the upper hand now shows that India did not read the signals right. Now, whether India likes it or not, Beijing will play a bigger role in Nepali politics.
China has already given Nepal access to its ports and has been talking about a joint rail link construction. But the most significant move is the possibility of China supplying Nepal with petroleum products, which now come exclusively from India. This means that managing diplomatic relations with Nepal is going to get much more difficult. India’s best bet is to show greater willingness to work with the new government on infrastructure projects and not be seen to be interfering in internal political matters. Given the lakhs of Nepalis who work in India, the country has a stake in maintaining good relations with New Delhi. This is a time for deft diplomatic footwork. Delhi must signal that it is willing to go out of its way to accommodate the concerns of the new government. The possibility of Kathmandu moving closer to Beijing will have several negative consequences for India that must be anticipated and dealt with promptly.
Editorial, Hindustan Times, 12 December 2017.