Oli’s departure marks an Indian comeback

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Published on Jul 26, 2016 09:04 AM IST
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Nepal’ s Prime Minister KP Oli’ s resignation on Sunday evening shows clearly the limits of ethnic majoritarianism and ultra nationalism in an ethnically diverse and politically fragmented country. It opens the doors for national reconciliation between the hills and the plains, after a deeply polarised and divisive period presided over by Oli.

It marks India’s comeback in Nepal’s political landscape, after being unable to shape political outcomes over the past year. India has historically exercised influence in Nepali politics, including during moments of regime change. Delhi mediated a political deal between the democratic parties and Maoists to wage a joint struggle against an autocratic monarchy, and embark on a peace process 10 years ago. The end goal of this process was the writing of an inclusive, federal, democratic, republican constitution.

But over the past two years, the dynamics have changed.

Nepal’s political elite began pushing a constitutional draft that would have left the Madhesis, as well as other marginalised communities of the country, underrepresented in political structures. It carved out a federal model which would ensure the dominance of the hill upper caste communities.

Delhi was uncomfortable. It realised that Madhesi discontent would spill across the border and feared a Sri Lanka-type situation. PM Modi told Nepal’s political elite that the constitution should be drafted through consensus, which would mean taking all actors, including the Maoists, on board.

But Nepali leaders, almost exclusively from hill castes pushed a constitution forward in September, 2015. The Madhesi protests escalated after the constitution. The state was brutal and killed over 40 protestors — this led to further alienation. Terai’s parties used the only strategic lever they possessed — access to the open border. They closed the border in order to disrupt flows to Kathmandu and generate pressure on the establishment. This came to be known as the ‘blockade’ — it was not, as many in Kathmandu insist, India-imposed. But it was India-supported.

Kathmandu’ s politicians then turned this into a battle of sovereignty and nationalism. The man who played a key role in this entire process was KP Oli.

This was a shock to the Indian establishment, for Oli had been one of Delhi’ s favourites. Sources have told HT the Ministry of External Affairs and Research and Analysis Wing funded projects in his constituency, took care of his health treatment in Delhi, and supported him in intra-party battles.

But Oli was ideologically a conservative. He did not respect Nepal’s diversity. India felt after the constitution promulgation that if Oli became PM, the ethnic conflict would only deepen in Nepal. So it encouraged the then PM and Nepali Congress leader Sushil Koirala to throw his hat in the ring. Koirala did so, but was unable to gather a majority. The Maoists and a major royalist party backed Oli to form a government of the far left and far right in Nepal. India was outsmarted but it had managed to break the elite compact in Nepal that lay at the heart of a divisive constitution.

In May, the Maoist chairman Prachand a decided to withdraw support from the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist ), only to retreat the following day. There was a strong local context here. The two parties compete for the same base, and the Maoists were worried about UML’s growing strength. Prachand a was also insecure of war time cases and felt Oli was doing little to protect him and his cad res. The opposition, NC, promised to make him PM. But Prachanda changed his mind. As HT reported then, a key reason for this was Chinese advice.

Beijing has generally maintained a hands-off approach when it comes to internal politics. Its core interest lies in ensuring Nepal does not become a hub of Tibetan unrest. But over the past decade, its engagement in Nepal has grown. During the blockade, Oli also signed agreements to enhance connectivity and import fuel from China. It is important to note these pacts are on paper. Geography, costs and logistics still make India Nepal’s natural economic partner.

But at a time when India-China ties are tense, and Beijing is expanding its footprint in South Asia, Nepal was an easy case. It had friendly government. President Xi Jinping was scheduled to visit in October. And Chinese diplomats urged Prachand a to stay on, maintain ‘left unity’ and support Oli. He blinked. Oli was emboldened. He blamed India for trying to destabilise him, secure in China’s support. He also recalled Nepal’s envoy to India and cancelled the president’ s visit to Delhi.

India at this stage had a choice. It could have become aggressive, sent signals of displeasure, and become more actively hostile. But it waited for Prachanda. Known for his vacillating temperament, Delhi kept nudging and encouraging Prachanda to think of where his interests lay. Oli was gradually isolated. Eventually, the PM decided to make a‘ nationalist’ speech and project himself as a victim of conspiracies.

This is not the end of Nepal’ s troubles. To get the Madhesis on board, the constitution needs to be amended which needs a two-thirds majority. With Oli in opposition, that will not be easy. But beyond these games, the test will be whether the next Nepal government brings back inclusive democracy and the country’s relationship with Delhi back on track.


    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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