The results of the national and provincial elections in Nepal should be a cause of concern for New Delhi. A coalition led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), which has had no love lost for India, has triumphed. The centrist, and more importantly pro-India, Nepali Congress has been defeated. And while it would be simplistic to interpret the outcome as an anti-India mandate, there is no denying that relations between New Delhi and Kathmandu are bound to be challenged. However, the cultural connect between the two countries and their peoples cannot be dented so easily.
As Prime Minister, KPS Oli, who leads the CPN (UML), had adopted a strong anti-India line. Indeed, he and his party had garnered public support against New Delhi during the economic blockade period in 2015. India had been blamed for the crisis, and even elements friendly towards it, had remained silent over the allegation. This was because the general sentiment in Nepal had gone against India, largely due to the effective propaganda by the Oli-led camp which painted India as the villain. It can be argued that New Delhi could have been handled the issue better.
The economic blockade was the turning point. Until then, India-Nepal ties had touched a new high. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Nepal soon after assuming power; his address to Parliament there, which was greeted with sincere applause; the ecstatic reception he received wherever he went in that country; and the massive and prompt rescue and relief work the Indian forces had done during the devastating earthquake in Nepal, had all left a very positive imprint about India among the people and the polity there. Among other things, the Prime Minister Modi touched upon two issues. He said that Nepal should adopt a Constitution which was not just a majority-driven document but an inclusive one derived out of genuine consensus among all stake-holders. The second was that he whole-heartedly endorsed the Nepalese desire to re-write the decades-old bilateral Treaty of Peace and Friendship. He told lawmakers in Kathmandu that they could prepare a draft and that New Delhi would willingly ink it. That, then, was the level of trust.
Things began to change with Oli assuming prime ministership in October 2015. While the economic blockade marked a low point, ties were strained for other reasons as well. The communist leader brought with him an anti-India prejudice and his tilt towards China was pronounced. As Prime Minister, he steered the country into signing a host of agreements with Beijing, including trade and transit deals that aimed to dent India’s presence. He frequently talked of having a rail link between Nepal and China. Besides, he appeared to be a strong votary of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Indications have come, after the election results, that Kathmandu will proceed with great speed on the rail project and expeditiously open up Nepal to the BRI.
It is thus very possible that a new dawn may emerge in Nepal-China relations after a new communist government takes charge in Kathmandu. Only days before the elections, the Nepali Congress regime had scrapped a major 1,200KW hydropower project that China was supposed to develop. The end came after some political parties raised questions on the process of awarding the work to the Chinese. Even New Delhi was upset by the deal. But with a communist regime in place, this project is likely to be revived in Beijing’s favour. Incidentally, China had strongly protested against Nepal’s decision to terminate the agreement, and had termed it “arbitrary”.
China will have other expectations from Nepal, besides the BRI and the hydropower project. Many of these will remain unstated. For instance, it would want Kathmandu to scale down its economic engagements with India, or at least involve Beijing more in the economic development of Nepal, thus diluting India’s leverage in the region and leading to Beijing expanded footprint in the region. China does realise its geographical limitations and India’s advantage over it in the matter. This had become evident during the blockade period, when Chinese assistance simply could not match the needs of Nepal due to logistical reasons. Nevertheless, if Beijing can spread its influence in far-off Africa, it can surely hope to do so even more decisively in neighbouring Nepal. The task has become easier given China’s complete domination in Tibet — a region which will play an important role in the China-Nepal connectivity.
The Indian and the Chinese roles in shaping Nepal’s polity has often been talked about. There is enough material to suggest that New Delhi has contributed enormously from the days of the imperial rule. It had done its bit to nudge the end of monarchy. It also had a hand in the termination of the decade-long People’s War launched by the Maoists, and the subsequent integration of the Maoists led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ into the political mainstream. And, while it had not bargained for Prachanda to become Prime Minister in 2008, India provided him support once he took charge, naturally in the hope that he would recognise the gesture and cement India-Nepal relations.
That was not to happen and Prachanda’s regime fell within months. The new version of the communist leader which subsequently emerged was more sober and realistic. Soon, he was to become an ardent supporter of Prime Minister Modi’s outreach to Nepal. When Prachanda became Prime Minister a second time in 2016, he made the right noises in India’s favour, which came as a refreshing change from the Oli-led anti-India tirade.
The interesting thing is that Prachanda is also part of the grand communist alliance which has won the recent elections (his party, the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre, secured the second largest number of seats) and his conduct will be watched intently by both India and China. Former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, one-time comrade of the Maoist leader, too is a partner, and he has had a track record of being a moderate. Just how Prachanda and Bhattarai will handle the pro-China and largely anti-India stance of the communists whom Oli leads, will determine not just the fate of the regime but also India-Nepal relations.
Meanwhile, there is a school of thought which believes that New Delhi has bungled by pampering the ‘elite’ sections of Nepalese politics, primarily constituting the ‘Bahun’ or Nepalese-speaking Brahmins — the valley-based ones. It did not stand up strongly enough when a Constitution, which did not address the concerns of the Mhadesi community in Nepal, was adopted by Kathmandu. It sought to balance out, in a ‘neutral’ fashion, the forces of the Madhesi community and the political system minus this group. In the end, it not just lost the trust of the Madhesis but also achieved little by way of gaining the support of the rest.