With increasing Chinese inroads into Nepal, India wants to safeguard its strategic interests, for which improving relations with Oli is crucial, writes Pramod Jaiswal and Priyanka Jha for South Asia Monitor
By Pramod Jaiswal and Priyanka Jha
Nepal has just held its first provincial and parliamentary elections under the new constitutional framework which was promulgated in September 2015.
The Left Alliance, comprising the Communist Party of Nepal – Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) and the Communist Party of Nepal – Maoists Centre (CPN-Maoist Centre), won over two-third of the 165 seats to the House of Representatives elected through the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system. Out of 110 seats elected through proportional representation (PR), they would have around 47 percent.
The Madhes-based parties; the Rastriya Janata Party Nepal (RJPN) and Sanghiya Samajwadi Forum Nepal; emerged as a strong force in Provimce 2 while the Left Alliance will form the government in six of the seven provinces.
The outcome of these elections have raised several questions: What led to the rise of the Left alliance and setback of the Nepali Congress (NC), the largest party in the previous election and how will India deal with Nepal’s new leftist government?
The Left Alliance comprising two major communist parties; the KP Sharma Oli-led CPN-UML and Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’- led CPN-Maoist Centre; formed a pre- election alliance and fielded candidates in the ratio of 60:40 respectively. Earlier, they were the second and third largest party in Parliament. They contested the election with a common manifesto stressing stability and prosperity and a likely merger of both parties after the election. This impressed voters keenly seeking political stability in Nepal. Nepal has seen 10 prime ministers in the past 10 years. This prolonged political instability slowed economic development.
Additionally, Oli’s nationalist image, because of his firm stand against India during the ‘unofficial’ blockade of 2015, where Kathmandu saw a ‘hidden Indian hand’, also attracted the hill voters. The strong Left campaign across the country worked in their favour, while the lack of a strong opposition contributed to their decisive victory.
The Nepali Congress not only lacked a proper agenda, but also failed to form an alliance with Madhesi and other parties to challenge the Left or impress Madhesi voters. While hill voters accused them of not speaking strongly against the blockade, the Madhesis were disenchanted with the NCs inadequate support for amendments to the statute. NC chairman Sher Bahadur Deuba was embroiled in various controversies before the election, as a result of which the party only won 23 the 165 FPTP seats in parliament despite its merger with the Bijay Gachhader- led Nepal Democratic Forum and electoral alliances with the pro-monarchy Rastriya Prajatantra Party and RastriyaPrajatantra Party-Democratic.
Like the hill voters, Madhesi voters were equally polarized. While hill voters voted for the ‘ultra-nationalist’ KP Sharma Oli, the Madhesi voters opted for Madhes-based parties like the RJPN and SSFN, which formed an alliance and secured a clear majority in Province 2.
Though the Left alliance won enough seats to comfortably form the government, they could not get a two-thirds majority to make major amendments to the Constitution.
Oli would lead the next government while ‘Prachanda’ would exercise considerable power, claiming a 40 percent share in provincial governments and in Oli’s cabinet. The Alliance government would face two major challenges – managing their leaders and fulfilling the promise of a stable government. If the Oli government fails to address demands of the Madhesis through constitutional amendments, it is unlikely to bring stability and peace in Nepal.
Relations between India and Nepal are quite unique. They share common languages, culture, customs, history and familial relations. The economy of both countries is also closely inter-connected. However, there are apprehensions in India that a Left government in power could strain relations particularly since Oli’s government saw an Indian hand in the ‘unofficial’ economic blockade imposed by Madhesis in 2015 to address their demands through a constitutional amendment. Another factor behind New Delhi’s anxiety is Beijing’s backing of the Left Alliance. Nepal watchers in India see Oli as ‘pro-China’ and ‘anti-India’.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has congratulated Oli and invited him to visit New Delhi as Nepal’s new Prime Minister, clearly indicating a desire to work to resolve differences. With increasing Chinese inroads into Nepal, India wants to safeguard its strategic interests, for which improving relations with Oli is crucial. Similarly, it is in Oli’s interest to take India into confidence, improve relations and assure India that his government would not make any decisions that would affect India’s core security interests and keep himself out of any geopolitical complexities between his giant neighbours. This would also give him space to work for Nepal’s development.
India will have to accommodate China in Nepal. Kathmandu is on board Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to visit Nepal and announce assistance for number of development projects under the BRI. Nepal would have to careful while implementing those because any Chinese project which impacts India’s core security interests would have a deep bearing impact on Nepal-India relations.
For Oli, balancing both Nepal’s giant neighours while cultivating them for the country’s development will be the major challenge.
(Dr. Jaiswal is associated with Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies and Jha is Research Assistant with Nepal Institute for International Cooperation and Engagement, Kathmandu. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)