Bharat Bhushan - Himalayan chessboard: India fishes for advantage in unstable Nepal

A perception that India is supporting ongoing instability in Nepal is likely to alienate its people and political parties. Media reports in India indicate that “political and government sources” prefer mid-term general elections in Nepal. The current political turmoil in Nepal has grown out of a leadership challenge to Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli from within his own party, the Nepal Communist Party (NCP). He has converted it into a larger institutional crisis by dissolving Parliament.

However, Nepal’s constitutionally elected Pratinidhi Sabha or Parliament can legally continue for its full five-year term. A new government can yet be formed by either the majority of a single party or through a coalition of parties. Neither alternative has been exhausted. The Supreme Court could still uphold the sanctity of the present Parliament. Most importantly, there is no mass uprising demanding fresh polls. On the contrary, people on the streets are protesting against Oli’s subversion of democracy.

Then why are mendacious mandarins in Delhi throwing their weight behind Oli’s misadventure? Do they think he would help to check China’s growing influence in Nepal? The same officials had demonised Oli just months earlier for being under Chinese influence. Now they speak of him as being “reluctant to engage with the Chinese”.

India has floated a test-balloon suggesting that Nepal’s Chief Justice could be the “acting prime minister” and conduct neutral and fair elections. Apparently India had used this ploy earlier in March 2013 also by suggesting such a way out through friendly political leaders. The then Chief Justice Khil Raj Regmi was appointed prime minister to oversee elections to the second Constituent Assembly. At that time, the Constituent Assembly-cum-Parliament’s term had expired and despite being extended for a year, it was unable to adopt a new Constitution. Today the circumstances are totally different.

The Supreme Court of Nepal will decide whether fresh elections are necessary on April 30 and May 10. There are petitions before it questioning the constitutional validity of Oli’s action in connivance with a rubber-stamp president, his former ally. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Oli and his foreign backers seem to be quite confident of being able to control the streets should the Supreme Court support the dissolution of Parliament as well as reasonably sure of ensuring a possible election victory. Who could these forces be?

Speculation will remain rife over India’s overt or covert role in facilitating an election. A spate of high level visits by Indian officials prior to the sudden dissolution of Parliament has strengthened suspicions of Indian support for Oli, who was earlier in the dog-house for hyping up disputes and differences with India.

There is also speculation that the United States is backing Oli. His challengers -- Pushp Kamal Dahal (aka Prachanda) and Madhav Kumar Nepal as well as a large section of the NCP -- had opposed the American $500 million Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC) initiative in the country while Oli had approved it. The MCC is an aid programme which is part of the American Indo-Pacific Strategy meant to counter China’s Belt Road Initiative. Nepal is the only South Asian recipient of MCC aid. Parliamentary approval for MCC is still pending in Nepal because of deep divisions within the NCP.

There are also suggestions that the US and India could be acting in tandem to contain China in Nepal. The Indian establishment will likely celebrate the imminent split in the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) as a goal against China which was instrumental in the merger of the Nepal Communist Party — United Marxist Leninist (UML) and the Communist Party (Maoist Centre). China has not yet given up on the idea of a unified NCP either in government or in the eventuality of polls, the party contesting as one, by side-lining Oli. Oli perhaps is being seen by Delhi as the last bulwark against Chinese machinations. How else do we understand the warnings of Indian diplomats that China’s next move would be to target Prime Minister Oli and “erode his credibility”?

When Nepal’s parliament was dissolved suddenly, India’s formal reaction was that it was an “internal matter” of Nepal. Why then should Delhi suggest fresh elections as a way forward or an interim election government headed by the Chief Justice or even warn against a Chinese attempt to erode the ‘credibility’ of Oli?

Some mendacious mandarins in Delhi think that instability in Nepal provides India with many more pieces and moves on Kathmandu’s chessboard. However, continued instability is likely to open up many divisive questions that were closed and fault lines that were largely bridged (or buried) by the promulgation of the Constitution. These relate to whether Nepal should be a Hindu nation or a secular state, the division between Paharis (Hill people) and the Madhesis (the people of Nepal’s Terai), the conflict between Dalits and Janjatis and the more socially advantaged groups, the nature of Nepalese federalism and most importantly, the role of the monarchy.

Reviving Nepal somehow as a Hindu nation with a restoration of monarchy, even in a purely ceremonial role, has considerable appeal to Hindutva ideologues in India. Crossing over of the Hindutva ideology into Nepal may be seen as an achievement by the Modi government. But it is unlikely to give any permanent advantage to India vis-à-vis China. Inevitably every ruler in Kathmandu, monarchist or Republican, has and will deflect attention from his troubles by playing the China card against India.

Reopening socially and politically contentious issues in Nepal would lead to turmoil that could spill over into India. Indian pursuit of greater influence on Nepal through political instability, therefore, is short-sighted.

What will increase Indian influence in Nepal is to recognise that it is a brother nation bound by unbreakable historic, cultural, religious, and linguistic ties. India should offer it such generous and special social, economic and political partnership that Nepal chooses India over China. It must also give a cast-iron guarantee that trade blockades will never take place again and desist from manipulating Nepal’s politics and politicians.

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