India Caught On The Backfoot As China Entrenches Itself In Nepal

India Caught On The Backfoot As China Entrenches Itself In Nepal

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Tuesday, November 7, 2017 02:55 PM IST
India Caught On The Backfoot As China Entrenches Itself In NepalOli and Prachanda, right.
  • New Delhi has to deploy all its diplomatic skills and resources to ensure that even if Oli becomes the next prime minister of Nepal, he does not succeed in his game plan of turning Nepal into a client state of China.

Last month, people of Nepal were taken by surprise at the announcement of the alliance between the two major communist parties of that country – the Khagda Prasad Sharma Oli-led Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Maexist Leninist) or CPN(UML) and the Pushpa Kamal Dahal-led Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). The alliance, though dubbed ‘unholy’ and ‘opportunistic’ by many, is most likely to win the federal and provincial elections later this year.

The formation of the alliance and its projected win in the polls in Nepal later this year represents a huge setback for India. Beijing is believed to have facilitated the formation of the communist alliance and the Chinese embassy in Nepal worked overtime to push CPN (Maoist) chief Dahal (or ‘Prachanda’, as he is better known as) into joining hands with his arch rival Oli, who is virulently anti-Indian and pro-China. With the alliance projected as the winner in the next federal polls, Oli is likely to become the prime minister and ally his country very closely with China.

New Delhi was as taken aback by the announcement of the alliance as the people of Nepal. More so since Oli and Prachanda had a bitter parting of ways in July last year, following which Oli had to step down as prime minister. The two parties had joined hands to form the government in October 2015 and an informal seat-sharing arrangement between Oli and Prachanda was agreed upon. However, Oli, who is said to be power-hungry, refused to vacate the prime minister’s post for Prachanda, and this led to the Maoists joining hands with the Nepali Congress to oust Oli and form the government.

The formation of the alliance between the Nepali Congress and the Maoists was believed to have had the blessings of New Delhi. Prachanda became the prime minister and, in May this year, stepped down as per a seat-sharing deal with Sher Bahadur Deuba (who heads the Nepali Congress). The alliance and the government were working fine until the surprise formation of the communist alliance in early-October. Prime Minister Deuba, who has said the new communist alliance is a threat to democracy, decided to throw out ministers belonging to the CPN (Maoist) from his government since their party had formed an alliance with the CPN (UML). But he was advised against it. Prachanda, who met Deuba after the formation of the communist alliance, told the Prime Minister that “politics is a game of possibilities” and the prospect of the Maoists joining hands with the Nepali Congress once again after the elections cannot be ruled out.

Deuba, who is perceived to be close to New Delhi, is now busy cobbling an alliance with the non-communist forces. The Rashtriya Janata Party-Nepal (RJP-N) and the Sanghiya Samajbadi Forum - Nepal (SSF-N) – an alliance of three Madhesi parties – as well as the royalist Rashtriya Prajatantra Party have joined hands with the Nepali Congress (NC) to counter the communist alliance. But poll pundits say that it will be difficult for such an alliance to win even a simple majority in the crucial federal and provincial elections. The best scenario for Deuba is for the communist alliance to get only a simple majority and then try to wean away the Maoists. But that will be difficult, given that China will want to keep the communist alliance afloat in its own interests.

Also, this NC-led alliance is beset with many differences and is an uneasy one. Selecting candidates has become a major issue that threatens to unravel the alliance. The NC and the two Madhesi parties are all influential in the eastern Terai and, thus, have to negotiate strong claims by its own candidates for nominations. The communist alliance, on the other hand, seems to be sailing smoothly after initial hiccups and Oli has firmly kept his promise of allocating 40 per cent of the seats to the Prachanda’s CPN-M.

The departure of the Baburam Bhattarai-led Naya Shakti Party from the communist alliance was, at best, a minor setback since the party of this former prime minister is a relatively lightweight entity in Nepal’s politics. Here, too, China has scored over India by exerting its influence and prevailing over the two communist parties to stay the course despite many squabbles over seat sharing in the recent past. China’s aim – to unite the two communist rivals in Nepal – does not seem too distant. New Delhi has not, so far, been able to nudge the non-communist parties – a disparate group with starkly different political ideologies and interests but with overlapping geographical spheres of influence – to coalesce into a tight-knit alliance.

The alliance between Nepal’s communist rivals early last month was prompted by the results of the provincial elections to Province 2 (the lower eastern Terai) in late-September. The NC won 40 seats and the Maoists 21, but Oli’s UML won only 18 seats. The Madhesi alliances (RJP-N and the SSF-N) won 51 between them. An analysis of the results made both Oli and Prachanda realise that the division of votes between the communist rivals led to their poor show. Had the two parties contested the polls together, they could have won up to 83 per cent of the seats across the country’s seven provinces.

Also, an analysis of the poll results showed that given the proportional electoral system that Nepal had adopted, no single party would be getting the required absolute majority (to form the government) in the forthcoming elections later this year. In such a case, fearing Oli, the NC and the Maoists would once again form an alliance and assume power, thus keeping him away from the prime minister’s chair that he covets so much. Oli is a highly ambitious man.

Oli also realised that the Maoists were a considerable political force in the county and could not be wished away. And then, with the strong nudge and backing of Beijing, he approached Prachanda who had also belatedly realised that his alliance with the NC, to which he was ideologically opposed, was quite an unnatural one. Prachanda has been promised the post of president of the unified communist party (once the two parties merge) and that was a great incentive for him to dump the NC and ally with his communist rival.

Problems For India

Oli, who is most likely to become the next prime minister of Nepal after the federal elections later this year, will pose many problems for India. He is considered to be virulently anti-India and passionately pro-China. Oli was the one responsible for creating a crisis in 2015 after he became the prime minister by denying the Madhesis and some other marginalised groups their genuine political rights. That crisis led to the crippling Nepal blockade with thousands of trucks carrying fuel, foodgrains and other commodities stuck at the India-Nepal border after the Madhesis called for a strike. Oli, a wily politician, accused India of imposing the blockade that created a humanitarian crisis in Nepal and his party whipped up anti-Indian sentiments in that country.

Oli also used the crisis to deepen Nepal’s ties with China. He entered into a slew of agreements with China for opening traditional and new trade and transit routes between the two countries and for the Chinese to supply fuel and other goods to besieged Nepal. The blockade led to increased Chinese involvement in Nepal. Beijing used the goodwill it generated in the Himalayan country to deepen its involvement in the social, political and economic segments of Nepal. China is investing $8.3 billion in Nepal this year alone, compared to India’s $1.9 billion. Chinese companies are building hydropower projects, hospitals, roads, bridges and rail network (including the Kathmandu Metro).

With Oli as prime minister again, China’s involvement in Nepal’s polity will surely deepen even further. While greater Chinese investments are good news for a sovereign Nepal, what is bad news for India is China turning Nepal into a satellite state and using it to counter India in Asia. China has always sought to keep India pinned down in its immediate neighbourhood, and with its strong ally Oli as the head of government, Beijing will find it easy to get Kathmandu to create irritants in Indo-Nepalese ties.

Oli, a hill leader, is strongly opposed to giving Madhesis a greater role in the country’s politics. He wants to deny the Madhesis their fair share of power in order to perpetuate the dominance of Nepal’s ‘hill elites’ in the country’s politics. He is, thus, opposed to constitutional amendments that would guarantee the Madhesis a greater and proportionate role in the country’s political system. The NC and the Maoists are, incidentally, sympathetic to the political demands of the Madhesis. Oli’s intransigence on the Madhesi demand for amending the Constitution could see another spell of agitation by the Madhesis, thus creating another crisis in Nepal.

India, which has been traditionally siding with the Madhesis because of the close cultural, familial and linguistic affinities between the Madhesis and the people of Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh, would then be forced to intervene on behalf of the Madhesis. And that would give Oli another chance to not only whip up sentiments against India, but also take Nepal further away from India and into China’s ambit. Such a scenario would also suit Beijing, which has a propensity to fish in troubled waters, absolutely fine.

The coming months are going to be tough times for Indo-Nepalese ties. New Delhi has to deploy all its diplomatic skills and resources to ensure that even if Oli becomes the next prime minister of Nepal, he does not succeed in his game plan of turning Nepal into a client state of China.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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