The Nepal Political Conundrum

How much are the Indo Nepal interactions influenced by the internal politics of Nepal?

Most political parties in Nepal have Indian roots, but they have evolved independently over time with the ebb and flow of domestic politics. The Nepali Congress (NC), considered close to the Indian National Congress, and the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) were both founded in India in the 1940s. Back then, the Rana regime was in control until it was overthrown and the NC came to power in 1959 as the first elected government in this Hindu Kingdom. However, the king took over executive power within two years, and Nepal became a Hindu monarchy for the next three decades.

NAVIGATING THE POLITICAL MAZE

Nepal Communist Party (NCP): Currently the ruling party, it was formed with the coming together of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist or UML) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) in 2018. The present Prime Minister, K.P. Sharma Oli, is from the NCP.

Nepali Congress (NC): It is a social democrat party, which is the main Opposition today. It was formed in 1950 by the merger of the Nepali National Congress (founded by Matrika Prasad Koirala in Calcutta on January 25, 1946) and the Nepal Democratic Congress (founded by Subarna Shumsher Rana in Calcutta on August 4, 1948). The NC has since then formed four governments, including the first democratically elected one.

Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP-N): This is a Madhesi (Indian-origin people populating the Terai region) based party, which is today the third-largest political player in the Nepali parliament. It advocates the interests of an assortment of disadvantaged groups, who although granted citizenship, continue to be excluded from service in the bureaucracy, military, and other influential political parties. They demand a more equitable share of political resources and access to higher education. The 2015 constitutional changes further deprived these groups, which led to the embargo imposed by the Madhesis, maliciously labelled as “India-sponsored”.

Post-opening up of the democratic process in the 1990s, a plethora of political parties emerged, and the stage was set for intense political competition. Apart from the three prominent parties mentioned above, a new player emerged representing the monarchists associated with the panchayat system — the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP). The RPP caters to the segment which still pines for a return to the Hindu Kingdom under the royal family and was the sole vote against a republic in 2008.

The communist parties have over the years transformed their ideology to create a space for themselves in a multiparty political system, behaving more like any other social democratic party than a true red-blooded communist. The communists are also driven by internal dissensions between the hardliners and the moderates. The most prominent break was when the former Prime Minister, Baburam Bhattarai, quit soon after the formation of the new Constitution and went ahead to form his own party, the Naya Shakti party. In April 2020, the NCP saw serious infighting between its rival factions with the position of Prime Minister Oli seriously endangered; a situation which still continues.

The Madhesi parties too, do not see eye to eye when it comes to federal politics. While the Nepal Sadhbhavana Party (the precursor to the JSP-N) claimed to be safeguarding Madheshi interests till 2000, a variety of smaller parties have cropped up in the Terai. Some of these parties espouse the creation of a homeland for their 'janjati' group. These include the Tharus (Thaurhat), the Tamangs (Tamsaling), the Rais (Khambuwan), and the Limbus (Limbuwan).

LOSING GROUND

There is a sense that perhaps Indian diplomacy has been unable to keep pace with the changing dynamics of Nepal's internal politics, thus surrendering space for Chinese machinations in the already muddied waters. The Kalapani dispute is merely a symptom of this distancing.

It is no longer enough for India to continue to harp on the “cultural, religious ties” and the linkages of “roti and beti” (job and marriage bonding) to nurture a lasting relationship with Nepal. Nepali politicians no longer consider themselves within the “Indian sphere of influence” as may be deemed by the mandarins in India’s South Block. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Chinese investments, and Delhi's own extra-regional focus have created this situation.

Nepal has one of the youngest demographic profiles in the world, and the youth are easily incited by perceived or actual Indian wrongs. This is tapped by aspiring politicians in Nepal to further their own electoral interests.

In fact, the Kalapani border road inauguration on May 8, aimed at domestically generating a sense of achievement in times of the pandemic, could not have come at a more inopportune time. Fighting to hold on to his prime ministership, Mr. Oli was able to grasp it as a platform to divert public attention using nationalistic emotions.

Over 8 million citizens of Nepal enjoy the right to reside and work in India, including over 32,000 Gurkha soldiers proudly serving the Indian Army. As per the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu, there are over 1.26 lakh defence pensioners in Nepal. Both countries enjoy good defence and trade ties, with India being the largest trading partner.

THE CHINESE ANGLE

India, along with the U.S. and the EU, had always enjoyed significant influence in the internal politics of Nepal, which did not escape the notice of Beijing. China gradually started increasing its presence, and more importantly, its financial carrot, with increased Chinese tourists, reconstruction post-earthquake, and the inclusion of Nepal in the BRI trade, energy, and transportation. This was a clear message that China had a larger stake in Nepal, to overshadow the Indian role so far.

Few deny the increasing political influence of China in Nepal, which could have been a factor in strengthening Mr. Oli’s stance against India in recent months. Since the economic blockade of 2015, there has been a marked change in Nepal's attitude towards India. Parties in power are trying to balance the economic leverage that India enjoys over Nepal with the China card, especially when they feel India’s own engagements with other important foreign policy issues result in a neglect of their demands.

This game of brinkmanship does not sit well with a major section of the populace where there remains a large groundswell of goodwill towards India. This is especially true with security and strategic establishments which enjoy good working relationships with their counterparts in India. Incidentally, both Indian and the Nepali Chiefs of Army Staff are granted honorary generalship by both armies, and the Nepali army is considered as the staunchest institutional ally of India.

Kamal Dev Bhattarai, a Nepal-based journalist, highlighted in The Diplomat (May 22, 2020 issue) the role of the Chinese Ambassador to Nepal, Hou Yanqi, to resolve the factionalism within the ruling NCP. She convened a meeting with the leaders of the various factions and calmed the waters. According to Bhattarai, the English-language media in Nepal has been talking about Chinese micro-managementin the internal politics of Nepal.

ASSESSMENT

  • India has to redefine its relations with Nepal. For a start, the report of the Eminent Persons' Group of 2018 must be jointly reviewed to fulfil its mandate of recommending a new roadmap for Indo-Nepal bilateral relations — from the 1950 treaty to the open border and rights of residence of its respective citizens. While recent official moves in relation to the Kalapani dispute had bipartisan support in Nepal, there is a strong groundswell amidst many key players within Nepali polity to arrest the situation before more damage is done.
  • Nepal is the lynchpin in India's 'Neighbours First' policies, and since 2015, India has made many bold moves and course corrections. Both Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Oli had established direct personal and political connections not seen in earlier dispensations. Perhaps, India has been blindsided by the vehement and unexpected response from the Nepalese sides, hence the relative hiatus on its part in making amends. Both have a lot to gain, from connectivity to economic interdependence, and there is no reason why this too shall pass, like many other "bumps" in Indo-Nepal relations which both have experienced in the past.

Author: Maj Gen Ajay Sah, SM, VSM (Retired), CIO, Synergia Foundation

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