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Nepal elections: An India-China battle at the ballot box

The outcome of the Nepal polls will determine whether India continues to be the decisive and dominant actor in the country, or whether its shift northward towards China deepens.

world Updated: Nov 25, 2017 23:13 IST
Prashant Jha
A man carries ballot boxes at a polling station in Nepal’s Sindhupalchok District, on November 25, 2017 — the eve of parliamentary and provincial elections in the country.
A man carries ballot boxes at a polling station in Nepal’s Sindhupalchok District, on November 25, 2017 — the eve of parliamentary and provincial elections in the country.(Reuters)

Nepal votes, in the first round of a two-phase election, on Sunday. The outcome will not just decide the internal balance of power in the country, but will also shape the external balance and determine whether India continues to be the decisive and dominant actor in the country, or whether Nepal’s shift northward towards China deepens. Indeed, Nepal joins a list of other South Asian countries where India and China are competing through their favoured domestic allies at the ballot box.

The primary battle in the election is between the Nepali Congress (NC) led by PM Sher Bahadur Deuba and a new left alliance - of the Communist Party of Nepal (UML) led by K P Oli and Maoists led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda”. Madhesi parties of the Tarai are fighting polls independently in their region of influence, but are expected to support NC after the polls.

The internal dynamics

First, the internal significance.

This is the first election after Nepal promulgated a federal democratic republican constitution back in September 2015. Polling is happening for both national parliament and provincial legislatures across seven newly created states. It will institutionalise the constitution, and mark an end to a prolonged political transition which saw the monarchy abolished and Maoists become a part of the mainstream politics of the country.

The constitution was deeply contested - and led to protests by Madhesis of the southern plains, bordering India, who argued that the constitution had eroded their representation and gerrymandered the federal units to divide and weaken them. The country’s political elite responded and passed one amendment, but key demands remained unaddressed. Despite their reservations over parts of the constitution, the Madhesis are participating in the election.

Nepali Democratic Alliance leader Sunil Bahadur Thapa (C) greets attendees during an election campaign rally in Dhankuta district, some 400 kms east of Kathmandu, on November 19, 2017. (AFP)

The election is important because whoever wins at the national level and in most provinces will have an opportunity to shape the new state institutions. It will be on this new balance of power that the upper house of the national parliament, and the new president of the republic will be elected.

Geopolitical contest

And that is why the stakes are high not only for Nepalis but those who want to have control over developments in Nepal. The election is being interpreted as an almost direct face-off between India and China at the ballot box.

After the constitution was promulgated, despite Indian reservations and advice to take Madhesis along, Oli formed a government with the support of Prachanda. This government stoked ultra nationalism - alleging that Madhesis protests at the border were actually an India-imposed blockade and made a conscious effort to deepen ties with China. India’s primary objective then was to oust Oli from government.

Eventually, India was able to persuade Prachanda to withdraw support to Oli and stitch an alliance with the Nepali Congress. Prachanda did so, despite clear Chinese advice to stay on with Oli for they desired a ‘united left front’. This was among the first instances of China dabbling in internal party politics in Nepal, something which India had been doing for long.

The Prachanda-NC alliance lasted for a little over the year. Soon after handing over power to Deuba, Prachanda made another switch - and stitched an electoral alliance with Oli’s UML, with the eventual promise of merging the two parties. There has been strong speculation ever since that China was active in encouraging the two parties to come together and is supporting the ‘communist alliance’. India, meanwhile, was quick to enhance its support for the ‘democratic alliance’ of NC, right wing parties, and the Madhesi forces.

A recent government decision to cancel a hydropower project to a Chinese firm is being seen as a signal by India-backed NC to China, even as Oli has promised he will revive it even if they come to power.

Nepali Congress and Democratic alliance election candidate Nabindra Raj Joshi (C) takes part in a door-to-door in election campaign in Kathmandu on November 21, 2017. (AFP)

Two caveats are necessary here. Irrespective of who wins, the government in Kathmandu will have to do business with both countries to their south and north. If the left wins, India too will renew its channels of communication with Oli; if NC wins, it will have ties with China. And second, the outcome could well be fragmented and alignments may change post elections- with Prachanda, for instance, allying back with NC.

But what is clear is that Delhi and Beijing have strong favourites in Nepal - and they happen to be on opposite ends. The election represents yet another mini theatre of intensified Great Power rivalry in the region.

India-China battles at the ballot box:

Bhutan- 2013

Bhutan’s first democratically elected government, led by Jigme Thinley, made a push to diversify ties and establish relations with China. India was uncomfortable, and did not renew gas subsidies to Bhutan right before polls. It was seen as a move to influence polls. Thinley lost.

Sri Lanka-2015

The country’s all powerful president, Mahinda Rajapakse, had called elections ahead of schedule. He was close to China. India had been uncomfortable with his shift to Beijing, and unwillingness to address Tamil concerns. It quietly facilitated an alliance between Maithripala Sirisena, Ranil Wickremasinghe and Chandrika Kumaratunga. Sirisena won in a surprise outcome.

Maldives-2013

After much turbulence, elections in Male threw up Abdulla Yameen as president, as he defeated the pro democracy liberal leader, Mohammed Nasheed. Since then, faultlines have got sharper. Yameen is being completely supported by China. While India has kept formal ties with him, it is keen to see the opposition led Nasheed and former president Maumoon Gayoom win power in the next election.