An uphill battle awaits Nepal’s new head of government
Nepal is set to hold its least ideologically charged election. Whosoever heads the new government in Kathmandu will have his task cut out, both on the domestic and external fronts.
On November 20, Nepal will hold its least ideologically charged general election in its history. If the five-party ruling coalition holds on, Sher Bahadur Deuba could be re-elected as prime minister (PM) for a sixth time, a record of sorts. Whoever comes to power will need to manage not just fractious domestic politics but also a small State in a challenging geopolitical environment.
Deuba’s liberal centrist Nepali Congress will fight the elections — Nepal’s second since it constitutionally became a federal State in 2015 — as part of a rainbow alliance. A low-key backroom player, Deuba, 76, has tried to accommodate politics of all shades and stripes, leading some to call it an unnatural alliance. One of his coalition partners, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center), waged a violent underground “people’s war” for 10 years, targeting Nepali Congress workers and leaders. In 2003, Deuba narrowly escaped death when Maoists sprayed his car with bullets. Another of his allies is one of two major Madheshi parties, deeply fragmented themselves, who have lost much of the moral high ground they once enjoyed on account of their chronic underrepresentation.
Sharp at throwing political barbs, former PM KP Oli, the leader of the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), never misses a chance to point out the irony of five parties with contrasting manifestos and ideologies competing on the same platform.
But Oli’s party is no better. The CPN-UML, which was the largest party in the federal Parliament, has formed electoral alliances even with royalists that call for the restoration of the monarchy and the Hindu State, arguing that the 2015 Constitution is a historical aberration that needs to be corrected. For voters, it’s hard to navigate these discordant messages.
The elections will throw up key questions. By all accounts, Parliament will be hung, unlike in 2017 when Oli’s CPN-UML and Prachanda’s Maoist party formed a Left Alliance to drub the Nepali Congress. Indeed, Oli and his followers campaigned emphatically on Nepali grievances against New Delhi, especially the six-month-long border blockade that Nepalis felt was unfairly imposed by India. The Nepal-India stand-off came amid Kathmandu’s desperate need for supplies in the aftermath of a devastating natural disaster. The 2015 Gorkha Earthquake killed close to 9,000 people, injured thousands of others, and destroyed close to a million structures — houses, highways, hospitals and schools. Though India was the first responder and offered generous assistance in its immediate aftermath, the early warmth quickly gave way to a long chill after the border blockade when Nepalis were trying to rebuild their lives and livelihoods. As India-Nepal ties soured, it propped up Beijing.
Seven years on, with elections now just a few days away, Delhi will look to build on some recent groundbreaking developments on bilateral ties. Nepal, for example, now exports electricity worth billions to India, making power one of its major exports, a move that will go a long way in reducing a huge trade deficit (and a constant irritant) with its largest trading partner.
That brings us to a very important question, that of China. There is much talk about what kind of result Beijing desires and how Nepal’s parties will respond. But it is just as important to ask how a democratic Nepal — civil society, academia, college and university teachers, and students and working professionals — will respond to Xi Jinping’s unprecedented third term as the party leader, putting him alongside only Mao Zedong in China’s pantheon of leaders.
Political parties are only part of a larger mix in a democratic space that is in churn. In May, Kathmandu elected a new young mayor — an independent candidate without any political background — whose campaign was entirely propelled by social media and a population deeply disenchanted with dominant political parties. A structural engineer and rapper, Balen Shah, 32, registered a landslide win.
Right through the 1950s until his death in 1976, Mao’s appeal to Nepalis was huge for both political and ideological reasons. For budding Communist leaders (who are now in the upper echelons of their parties), he was an ideologue and for the rulers in Kathmandu (King Mahendra and his son Birendra), he was a bulwark against India. On the global stage, Nepalis saw Mao as a major pillar of the Non-Aligned Movement, still a driver of Nepal’s official position on difficult foreign policy issues in a vastly different world. Indeed, China has now replaced the erstwhile Soviet Union in the superpower rivalry with the United States.
When President Xi visited Kathmandu in 2019, the world had changed since the heydays of Maoism and it would be a stretch to state that Nepal’s young population (median age of 25) — who grew in an open society — feel the old ideological kinship toward the founder of the People’s Republic of China and his successors. Granted, Xi now heads the world’s second-largest economy, and China, under the Chinese Communist Party, has grown more prosperous than it was ever before. Yet on Friday, when Chinese vice-minister for culture and tourism, Li Qunn, arrived in Kathmandu on a five-day visit, Nepal politely expressed its reservations. The Deuba government relayed to Beijing that the Nepal-China camaraderie would be better served if the visit were put on hold for now.
Such is the story of Nepal, the proverbial yam between two boulders, but there are other forces at play beyond the neighbourhood, too. Whosoever heads the new government in Kathmandu will have his task cut out, both on the domestic and external fronts.
Akhilesh Upadhyay is a senior fellow at IIDS, a Kathmandu-based think tank
The views expressed are personal