Why elections in Nepal should be worrying India

By Tushar Singh

The most expensive elections in the history of the country of Nepal were just concluded. They were the first Parliamentary elections since 1999 in a country which has seen 26 Prime Ministers in 27 years. Over the last 30 years, not a single government has completed a five-year term. In fact, the average tenure of a government is one year. The elections were held in two stages, on 26 November and 7 December, seeking to bring not only political stability and lasting democracy but also end a constitutional crisis which indirectly involved India. Political parties have segregated into two distinct alliances and coupled with the provisions in the new constitution, the new government is expected to last a full five-year term.

Back (and forth) to democracy

The recent polls are the first under a new constitution, which was adopted in 2015, after years of negotiations following a 10-year civil war between the security forces and Maoist insurgents. In 1990, King Birendra bowed down to domestic pressure and Nepal adopted a multi-party parliamentary system. However, the decade of the 1990s saw 9 governments. The Maoist insurgency also started in 1995, triggering a Civil War. In 2002, one year after the Palace Massacre, King Gyanendra dissolved the government and indefinitely put off the elections citing political instability and state of emergency due to Maoist insurgency.

However, after years of street protests and international pressure, King Gyanendra agreed to reinstall the Parliament in 2005. A peace deal was signed with the Maoists in 2006, the monarchy was abolished in 2007 by the Parliament and the first Constituent Assembly (CA) election was held in 2008, which was tasked to frame a Constitution. A second CA was elected in 2013. The CA also served as a legislature during that time, but its main mandate was writing a new Constitution for Nepal, which was prepared in 2015 and these are the first elections to be held under it.

The Indo-Sino angle

The Madhesis who live in the southern plains of Nepal launched a blockade of the open Indo-Nepalese border as they felt that they had been discriminated against in the 2015 Constitution. This led to fuel prices and prices of other commodities sky-rocketing as supplies from India could not reach the common man of Nepal. Though there is no official proof, many inside and outside Nepal believe that India also indirectly backed the border blockade as it was unhappy with the new Constitution and wanted Madhesis, who are related to people from Bihar and Eastern UP, to be given more rights and representation in the constitution.

Nepal’s Prime Minister at that time was KP Oli, who refused to amend the constitution and daringly stood his ground in front of the apparent Indian pressure. Instead, he approached China for investment in transport, hydroelectricity, country’s first railway and other infrastructure, and hence Nepal also became a part of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) Initiative which India is boycotting. It is notable that all of India’s neighbours except Bhutan are a part of OBOR. Nepal also conducted its first joint military exercise with China in 2015, the same year as Indian pressure mounted along the border.

Questioning the freeness and fairness

Now, in the recent elections, the leftists captured 70 percent of the 165 seats allocated on a first-past-the-post (FPTP) basis, compared with a meagre 14 percent for Nepali Congress. Leftists also captured six of the seven provinces. What is funny is that Nepal’s seven provinces are simply known as numbers one to seven. They do not yet have names or even capitals. Their borders have been drawn up just two years ago during the hasty, closed-door drafting of the Constitution and do not match the topographical or demographic divisions. Another interesting aspect of the elections was that millions of migrant workers in India, the Middle East and elsewhere, whose remittances are equivalent to 30 percent of GDP, were not allowed to vote despite a Supreme Court ruling that theoretically gave them that right.

The leftist alliance primarily consists of the Communist Party of Nepal (UML) and Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center). The alliance is suspected to have been forged with Chinese support, both moral and material. According to Surendra KC, a political analyst at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, the leftist victory was a “reactive result” to excessive Indian interference in Nepal. The only province in which the leftist alliance did not win was Province no. 2, which shares a border with India and has a dominating Madhesi population. It was won by parties representing the Madhesis who hope to amend the constitution.

India must be cautious

However, bad news for India is that KP Sharma Oli is tipped to become the Prime Minister again. When last in power he signed a 15-point communique with China on trade and transit cooperation, and during his latest election campaign advocated more Chinese-built infrastructure projects to stimulate job growth. In the election campaign, he projected himself as a man able to stand up to a domineering India. Even though it will not be the first time that India has to deal with a Communist government, there are strong indications that Nepal will move further northwards towards China as KP Oli, just days after his party was declared the biggest party in the elections, visited the Nepal-China border and declared that the transit point between the two nations will be upgraded.

Even though KP Oli’s official stance is “equidistant with China and India”, it seems unlikely that India can bank on Mr.Oli’s words as Chinese investments in Nepal grow. India’s GDP is one-fifth of China and China can easily bring in more investments in development-starved countries like Nepal and influence a tactical shift in their foreign policy. However, Nepal must remember that the more it welcomes Chinese investments, the more chances there are of Nepal defaulting on the loan.

India is the hard reality of Nepal. Millions of Nepalese work in India. India is Nepal’s biggest trading partner, and the two countries’ armies have historically been tightly bound.  Many Nepali students come to India to study in prestigious colleges. Both countries are ethnically and culturally related (Nepal was a Hindu kingdom not very long ago). While foreign policy can be influenced by the economic power of China, cultural and ethnic ties can never be broken or altered. Hence, it will be very difficult for China to replace India as the ‘elder brother’ of Nepal unless it does what the USSR did in Cuba or the USA did in West Germany.

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