New realities in Nepal

With historic parliamentary and provincial elections concluded in Nepal on December 7, the former Himalayan kingdom finally makes its long-awaited transition to a federal democratic republic. Yet India, the country that played a key role in fostering this political transition starting 2006, is likely to view the Left alliance victory with misgiving. Put another way, China is likely to be the happier of the two countries with the outcome of the Nepalese elections. Having won a majority in the state Assemblies, the coalition between the China-leaning Communist Party of Nepal — United Marxist Leninists (UML) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center) has secured a comfortable majority of the 165 parliamentary seats that are decided on a first-past-the post basis (another 110 seats will be apportioned on a proportional representation). The incumbent Nepali Congress, India’s ally, has been reduced to a rump party. With the prospect of K P Sharma Oli, who also has close business links with China, occupying the prime ministerial chair in Kathmandu again, India’s traditional ties stand severely weakened in its northern neighbourhood just as China tightens its links in the southern periphery, where it took charge of Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. 

The electoral results mark the apogee of a steady deterioration in relations from the high of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first, much-acclaimed visit to that country in August 2014. Within one year of that tour, the country was accused of unofficially supporting a 135-day economic blockade instigated by the Madhesis, people who occupy the bordering Terai region with close familial and cultural links to India, in protest against a diminution in their representative power after a new Constitution was declared. The blockade, which included vital fuel supplies as well as food, brought Nepal to a standstill and encouraged Mr Oli, who was the prime minister then, to turn to China for help. This unhelpful position harmed Indo-Nepalese relations deeply enough to vitiate the help New Delhi extended during the 2015 earthquake. This year, an abrupt shift of stance by the Indian foreign policy establishment ahead of the provincial elections to encourage Madhesis to drop their protests to the Constitution has cost India its staunchest support base within Nepal. 

Regaining influence with a neighbouring country that is part of China’s mammoth One Belt One Road project will be a tough ask. China is deeply involved in key infrastructure projects: In road and hydro-power. As significant is the $3 billion that Beijing plans to sink in a massive project to transform the Buddha’s birthplace into a major pilgrimage centre. Parrying this will demand that India reply in kind. To be sure, the two governments announced over Rs 5,000 crore worth of road and hydro-power projects earlier this year. These are unlikely to stoke popular Nepalese confidence given India’s poor record in project implementation. Some practical solutions such as reviving age-old rail links between the two countries that have now fallen into disuse and allowing citizens of the two countries seamless travel across borders could be an easy start. Geo-political realities and civilisational ties between the two countries demand that India could reap rich dividends if it focused strongly on implementing its project commitments in Nepal. A practical approach to diplomacy is the need of the hour.