Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli resigned on Sunday (24 July) as he found himself on the brink of losing a no-trust vote in Parliament.
In his nine months as Prime Minister, Oli had steered Nepal away from India and towards China, as Indo-Nepal ties plummeted to a new low.
Now that a new Prime Minister is set to take his place, the time is opportune for New Delhi to start regaining lost ground in Nepal and cement ties.
The resignation of Nepal’s Prime Minister Khagda Prasad Sharma Oli on Sunday evening on the floor of Nepal’s Parliament to save himself from the ignominy of losing a no-trust vote has come as a boon for India.
Oli, who became the Himalayan country’s Prime Minister in October last year after the Parliament adopted a new Constitution, had steered Nepal away from India and towards China. Oli’s nine-month tenure saw Indo-Nepal ties plummet to a new low, mainly due to his strident anti-India stand and frequent accusations of alleged Indian interference in Nepal’s internal affairs.
Oli’s tenure has also been a disastrous one for his country – post-earthquake reconstruction works moved at worse than a snail’s pace (read about it here on Swarajya), and the Madhesis and the Tharus, who together make for more than 46 percent of Nepal’s population, have felt alienated due to what they see as discriminatory provisions in Nepal’s new Constitution that was adopted in September last year. Oli is seen as a member of the ‘hill elite’ club (some hill-based leaders of Nepal) who want to deny the Madhesis and Tharus their due share of power.
The Madhesis had blockaded vital trade and transit links on the Indo-Nepal border from late September last year to protest what they alleged was their marginalisation under the new Constitution. But Oli, apart from accusing India of imposing the blockade, did little to bring the Madhesis and the Tharus on board. As a result, the trust deficit between the government and the agitators widened even as the country reeled under severe shortages of food, medicine, fuel and other commodities. His relentless blaming of India for the shortages rallied public opinion in the hill region of Nepal against India, and ties between the two countries plummeted.
Ultimately, following pressure from his own and other parties and in order to get the blockade lifted, Oli brought about some halfhearted Constitutional reforms in late January this year. But these amendments did not address the major demands of the Madhesis and, hence, were rejected by them. However, mainly at the urging of India, the Madhesis lifted the blockade in early February this year, but the anger over the government ignoring their major demands continues to simmer in the Terai region. Oli simply kept on ignoring the Madhesis for the last few months.
Oli visited India in late February this year, and nine agreements, mainly related to transit facilities and development of infrastructure, were signed between the two countries. Oli made friendly noises during his visit, but it was clear from his body language that he was not comfortable being in India and interacting with Indian leaders. Oli followed that up with a visit to China in March where he called that country an all-weather friend, deliberately using a term that Pakistan’s rulers and generals use to describe Sino-Pak ties. Oli’s usage of this term was aimed at sending a message to India.
Oli also signed a slew of agreements with China and highlighted the ones aimed at setting up new supply routes through Tibet in order to reduce dependence on India. That those routes haven’t helped Nepal get fuel and other essential commodities through Tibet, primarily due to logistical challenges posed by the mountainous terrain, is another story. But Oli painted himself into a corner by declaring that the new trade routes through the Sino-Nepal border would make the trade and transit routes along the Indo-Nepal border redundant; when supplies through the entry points on the Sino-Nepal border never went beyond a trickle, opposition and attacks on him mounted.
Oli’s failures on many fronts led his ally, Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist United) chairman Pushpa Kumar Dahal, to decide to withdraw support to the government in early May this year (read about the political crisis in Nepal in May this year here). But Oli survived, not the least because China leaned heavily on Dahal and other politicians in Nepal to continue supporting Oli. China, undoubtedly, looks upon Oli as a close friend who will allow them to displace India as Nepal’s closest ally. Oli, at that time, accused India of trying to topple him. A fresh crisis earlier this month led to Oli’s resignation on Sunday. But this time, China could not convince or bully Dahal and other politicians to save Oli. (Read about China’s games in Nepal here).
This time, too, Oli has held India responsible for interfering in his country’s internal affairs and getting him out of office. But this time around, Oli’s accusations had few takers, as this article by a writer from Nepal illustrates.
Now that Oli is out and the process of forming a coalition government is on, the time is opportune for New Delhi to start regaining lost ground in Nepal. Dahal is likely to become the next Prime Minister and needs to be worked on. Dahal, who is better known by his nom de guerre ‘Prachanda’ from his days as leader of the Maoists who waged a decade-long insurgency in Nepal from 1996 to 2006, had also blamed India for his resignation as Prime Minister after only a year in power in 2009. Prachanda wanted to sack the army chief, but the President blocked his move, and the Maoists accused India of influencing the President.
Though Prachanda has since mellowed down and carefully desists from criticising India for the many ills that afflict Nepal, New Delhi should nonetheless impress upon him that blaming India – as Nepal’s politicians are often in the habit of doing – does not serve any purpose and, in fact, harms Nepal. New Delhi has to drive it into the heads of Nepal’s Maoists and communists that they have to stop raising the India ‘bogey’ every time they face any difficulty. New Delhi should also make it very clear to the Maoists and communists of Nepal that the fruits of cooperation and maintaining friendly ties with India are many, and the consequences of going the Oli way are grave. At the same time, India has to speed up implementation of the various promises it made during Prime Minister’s visits to Nepal over the last two years and after the devastating earthquake that hit the country last year.
India also has to impress upon the new leadership that the concerns of the Madhesis and Tharus have to be accommodated and the new Constitution amended to incorporate their demands. Prachanda is inclined to do that, but may face opposition from the hill people, who look down on the Madhesis as ‘agents’ of India. This impression among many of Nepal’s hill politicians, which China has been fomenting, needs to be dispelled. India needs to make some grand gestures towards Nepal so that the hill people realise that it is India, and not China, who is their true friend.
New Delhi should also move quickly to counter China’s influence in Nepal. India’s leaders and diplomats have to work assiduously on Nepal’s politicians to wean them away from China. It would be a good achievement if New Delhi’s South Block can get the new dispensation in Nepal to go slow on the various deals that Oli had signed with China. Beijing has gained a lot of ground in Nepal in the nine months that Oli has been in power. That has to be countered and rolled back now. India’s foreign policy establishment has to move very quickly and get Nepal back on track. Nepal’s politicians have to be made to realise that given the close historical and cultural ties that India shares with Nepal and the traditional friendship between the people of the two countries, it is India, and not China, which is an all-weather friend of Nepal.
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