In Nepal, how domestic politics is colliding with geopolitics
Last month, Nepal’s Prime Minister (PM) KP Sharma Oli’s government quietly issued a circular to its administration to replace “Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal” with “Nepal” in its documents. Many saw it as a matter of practicality. To others, however, the move showed Oli in his true political colour — a conservative leader, who had never owned up to Nepal’s 2006 political transformation to a secular federal democratic republic from the 250-year-old Hindu monarchy that had put a tight political leash on Nepal’s linguistic, cultural and ethnic diversity.
The 2006 mass movement was led by civil society groups and political parties, including Oli’s own then-Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML). But well into the second decade of the mass movement, there are people on the political Right (and don’t get taken by the communist label; in Nepal, the Left is home to cultural conservatives too) but also in the ruling party and the main opposition, the Nepali Congress, who question the political changes. To them, the 12-point agreement between the underground Maoists and the parliamentary parties that led to the sweeping changes is tainted, for it was signed in New Delhi. China, whose reading of the ground situation was out of sync with the turn of events, belatedly consented to the move when it saw that the monarchy was fast losing its political base.
Now, many seem keen to dismantle the political edifice. The move is aimed at isolating Oli’s political nemesis, Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda”, who was a key architect of the 2006 change and is making a bid to remove the PM, but it also puts Oli’s signature conservatism to the heart of the polity. How the internal political battle within the Nepali communists shapes up will determine who controls the reins of power in Kathmandu till the next elections two years away, the trajectory of Nepal’s relationship with India and China and the rest of the international community, and the future of Nepali democracy.
All of this will be at stake when Oli responds to Prachanda’s challenge at an internal party meeting on November 28. There are three possible scenarios — Oli takes a middle-of-the-road approach that placates Prachanda for now; he takes a belligerent position (purges are common in communist parties whosoever gains ascendance); or, in the extreme case, Oli opts for a vertical split of the party.
The big question is how far will this domestic dynamic intersect with changing regional and global geopolitics. China has invested a lot of energy to bring the two communist parties together, with its ambassador to Nepal, Hou Yanqi, active in her bid to stave off a split, including during Diwali. It’s now Beijing that seems to be inviting public ire for meddling in Nepali politics — a sole preserve of New Delhi for decades.
It’s equally interesting to observe a subtle shift in Oli’s foreign-policy priorities. After flirting with the nationalist card early this year — best evidenced by the publication, and subsequent parliamentary endorsement, of Nepal’s new map that puts the Kalapani area within Nepal’s territory, notwithstanding India’s claims over the territory. Indian Army chief General MM Naravane (instead of a civilian leader) controversially accused Nepal of acting “at the behest of someone else”, in a reference to China, and ended up becoming the key target of Nepali anger. But the past few weeks have seen Oli and New Delhi make conciliatory overtures. Last month, he met the chief of India’s external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing, Samant Goel.
Soon after, General Naravane was conferred the rank of an honorary general of the Nepal Army by President Bidya Devi Bhandari. India’s foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla is now scheduled to arrive for a visit. China is not going to be outdone. By November-end, defence minister Wei Fenghe will arrive — the highest-ranking Chinese leader to visit Nepal since President Xi Jinping last year. The flurry of diplomatic activities is an indication that there is lot at stake here in the fast-emerging Asia-Pacific foreign policy and security architecture. The question is how Nepal will navigate it.
Akhilesh Upadhyay is senior fellow, IIDS, a Kathmandu-based think tank
The views expressed are personal