In Nepal’s political theatre, Delhi risks eroding strategic gains by backing Oli
A fresh political crisis is brewing in Nepal. President Bidhya Bhandari has dissolved the Parliament and called for fresh elections on the recommendation of Prime Minister K.P. Oli, but not without the drama that is part and parcel of Nepali politics.
Both Oli and the opposition, under Nepali Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba, had claimed to possess sufficient numbers to form a government, but the President regarded both claims as insufficient. This was despite the fact that Deuba’s claim — with the support of 149 parliamentarians, which makes for a comfortable majority — seemed more credible. It was also despite the fact that Oli had lost the trust vote in Parliament earlier; the PM himself had asked the President to explore alternative government formation methods; the Madhav Kumar Nepal–Jhalanath Khanal factions of his own party, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), were unwilling to back him; and elections had been on his mind since December, when he dissolved the Parliament only for it to be reinstated via a Supreme Court order.
The President’s complicity in overlooking constitutional processes is now under scrutiny, and will be examined by the Supreme Court. But what is certain is that everything, in terms of the outcome so far, is going Oli’s way in Nepal — and to have his way, he is willing to deploy all means, whether constitutional or unconstitutional.
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As the political drama intensifies in Kathmandu, the spotlight is once again on Delhi’s role in the current crisis.
The drivers of Delhi’s policy
Over the past year, India has shrugged off the ghosts of Oli’s anti-Indian nationalism, intensified its engagement with the Nepal government led by him, and played realpolitik that favours its interests. This was primarily based on the diplomatic assessment that India’s interests lay in deepening the State-to-State relationship, and for better or worse, Oli led the Nepali State.
But by now appearing to advise Madhesi leaders Mahant Thakur and Rajendra Mahato to remain neutral, Delhi has more than hinted that it is backing Oli in the current power struggle. It is also instructive that Delhi has not yet issued a statement on the entire episode, including the contested decision to go in for elections – striking only because India has in the past regularly commented on internal Nepali political affairs. The perception in Kathmandu’s political circles is that from engaging with the PM, Delhi is now investing in sustaining him in power.
This, in turn, appears to be based on Delhi’s assessment that Oli has emerged as a leader who drives the narrative in Nepal. If it antagonises him, Oli may once again pick up the anti-Indian nationalism drive that brought him to power in the 2018 elections. None of the opposition leaders – Deuba or Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ or Madhav Nepal or Baburam Bhattarai (all former PMs with whom Delhi has done business) – seem to inspire any confidence in South Block anymore.
By betting on Oli, Delhi seems to believe it will weaken the Nepali Communists and diminish China’s influence in the country. Its position also stems from an unease with the current Parliament, where communists collectively constitute over two-thirds of the House — the end of this Parliament and fresh elections seem to be a mutually shared objective. There are also unconfirmed reports that elements within India’s polity are happy to undermine the current constitution, a document at the heart of the 2015 “unofficial” blockade.
Decoding Oli’s motivations
Oli’s anti-Indian vitriolic during the 2015 blockade surprised many Indian diplomats who had until then, in the words of one former official, regarded him as ‘the Nepali politician [who] had worked most consistently towards strengthening ties with India”.
It was under Oli that Nepal grew closer to China. Ties became comfortable enough that a fraternal relationship was established between the Chinese Communist Party and the then-unified Nepal Communist Party (NCP), which even imported “Xi Jinping Thought” to train its cadre. As India-Nepal relations took a nosedive in May 2020 over the Kalapani dispute, Oli upped the ante by publishing a new political map that showed the contested territory as part of Nepal.
But fissures within the NCP saw Oli break ranks with both Prachanda and Beijing, allowing India to regain its foothold in Nepali politics. The whispers in Kathmandu grew louder: after the meetings with high-ranking Indian dignitaries, Oli was said to have “managed” Delhi. Just as Delhi was driven by a set of factors, Oli appears to have assessed that keeping Delhi in good humour would provide him a domestic political insurance, help neutralise the hostility of Madhesi parties, and remove impediments as he expanded control over Nepal’s institutions.
Now, with a call for elections amid a devastating second wave of the pandemic, it’s either Oli’s way or the highway in Nepal. Even as the rest of the Opposition gears up for a political and legal battle against him, Oli has promised the Thakur-Mahato faction a power-sharing deal, brought in an amendment to citizenship laws via an ordinance, and assured amnesty to Tharu and Madhesi cadres charged with violence during the 2015 anti-constitution protests.
What India learnt from 2015
A shift in India’s Nepal policy had been visible in the years after 2015. After the blockade drastically reduced its influence on the Nepali establishment and created a wave of anti-Indian backlash, Delhi visibly withdrew from Kathmandu’s political affairs and began focusing on its aid and infrastructure projects intended to expand connectivity and people-to-people relations.
One such project was the 69km-long Amlekhganj-Motihari oil pipeline, inaugurated in September 2019, significant also because one of the most visible symbols of the 2015 blockade was the fuel shortage in Nepal, while the resultant deal between Nepal and China eroded India’s monopoly over fuel supply. A second pipeline, a 50-km-long pipeline between Siliguri to Charali in Jhapa, Oli’s constituency, is in the works.
Similarly, despite the overwhelming attention paid to the proposed Tibet-Nepal railway, the almost 200-km-long broad-gauge line between Kathmandu and Raxaul is moving ahead at a much quicker pace, with India shouldering the costs of the detailed project report (DPR). Again, the contrast with Beijing is visible. The DPR for the Gyirong-Kathmandu railway was expected to cost over ₹20 billion, and Nepal had expected China to pay for it. India has also provided ₹500 crore as grant to upgrade the Hulaki Rajmarg in the plains of Nepal.
Delhi has also assisted towards earthquake reconstruction while pushing forward soft diplomacy tools such as the Sampark Alumni Network for Nepalis who’ve studied in India.
India’s “vaccine diplomacy” allowed Nepal to be one of the first countries in the world to vaccinate its people. India has also sent across oxygen during this current wave.
India’s decision to export vaccines has been severely criticised within the country, but by doing so, India sent a message of goodwill to citizens in the South Asian neighbourhood in a time of great need. The current wave of the pandemic also showed how intricately India and Nepal are connected despite the state of political affairs. Delhi must prioritise Nepal’s needs Delhi’s as soon as vaccine exports can be resumed.
Back to the political quagmire
One remarkable fact is that India’s development and connectivity projects had been ongoing despite a slowdown in relations brought about by the blockade and the 2020 Kalapani dispute respectively.
By supporting Oli, however, Delhi once again finds itself being drawn into the quagmire that is Nepali politics. If Delhi believes China’s influence in day-to-day affairs has been reduced with its moves, it must know China may be willing to decouple its economic and other engagements in Nepal from its political influence, as seen in the recent awarding of construction contracts to Chinese firms, including by the Nepal Army, an institution traditionally perceived to be close to India. A China-Nepal Friendship Industrial Park in Oli’s constituency is in the works, too. Although the supply of vaccines from China has hit a roadblock, China will not let go of the gains it has already made in Nepal.
By backing Oli in the current mess, Delhi is once again the wild card in Nepali politics. Oli is deeply unpopular; his mishandling of the pandemic has brought about a fresh wave of criticism against him. Had the two Madhesi leaders not decided to remain neutral, Oli may well have been out of power. If Delhi believes Oli will be more amenable to Madhesi demands and interests from hereon, it must remember that the 2015 constitution is Oli’s baby. Oli has also shown he is willing to disregard federalism and the devolution of power as had been envisioned in the new republic.
Now, Delhi risks returning to the turbulent days of the post-conflict period. Between 2009-2011, it put its weight behind an anti-Maoist alliance to not allow Prachanda to become prime minister. The move antagonised Nepalis across the board with its interventionist approach, emphasising the anti-Indianism that is a hallmark of Nepali politics. By now putting its weight behind a pro-Oli arrangement and antagonising almost the entire spectrum of Nepal’s polity and civil society, Delhi risks repeating its historical mistake.
Amish Raj Mulmi is the author of All Roads Lead North: Nepal’s Turn to China and a Kathmandu-based political commentator and editor
The views expressed are personal