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How Nepal election results have a bearing on India and China relations

If KP Oli becomes prime minister, Kathmandu may participate in Beijing's policy of encircling New Delhi.

 |  6-minute read |   11-12-2017
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Nepal's Communist alliance is headed for a landslide victory in the first parliamentary elections since the adoption of the new Republican Constitution.

The Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) and the Nepal Communist Party-Maoist Centre having stitched up a solid pre-election alliance have so far won 91 seats in the national Parliament and lead on another 31, serving a body blow to the Nepali Congress (NC), one of the country's oldest parties. The NC has won just 14 seats in a Parliament, which has 165 seats whose representatives are directly elected and 110 that are allocated to parties based on proportional representation. Here the NC is likely to improve its tally.

The Nepali Congress fortunes may improve as counting progresses but the government will be formed by the Left alliance. Many Nepali Congress stalwarts have been rejected by voters. Ram Chandr Poudyal, KP Sitaula, Bijay Gachhadar have all lost. NC president and Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba won but his wife Arju Rana was defeated.


Asian rivals India and China have been shadow-boxing in Nepal and are following the outcome of the polls closely. If the current trends continue, the next prime minister is likely to be KP Oli, a man India distrusts for forging close links with China. An Oli government will tilt heavily towards China much like Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen. The Nepal election results are coming in at a time when the Sri Lankan government has handed over operations of the Hambantota port to the Chinese.

Though the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe combine in Colombo have excellent ties with India, China's predatory moves backed by big incentives are difficult for most developing nations to resist. Nepal will be the newest participant to China's policy of encircling India, with Maldives and Sri Lanka providing major docking facilities for Chinese ships in the Indian Ocean.

Both Maldives and Sri Lanka are part of China's maritime silk route, while Nepal is onboard for President Xi Jinping's ambitious One Belt One Road (OBOR) project.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's much lauded foreign policy of "neighbourhood first" seems to have literally hit the Great Wall of China. Modi, however, started with a bang. His first visit, soon after taking office was an unqualified success. People lined up the streets to catch a glimpse of the new Indian leader. His stirring speech in Nepal's Parliament was applauded by everyone and Nepal felt it had a friend in the BJP leader.

During the devastating earthquake in 2015, India was the first country to reach out to Nepal and fly rescue sorties. Delhi also sent large quantities of relief material but the overwhelming presence of the Indian media annoyed many Nepalis. But at the political level, the ties remained intact.

It was when Nepal's new Constitution was announced and the Indian-origin Madhesis felt short-changed that ties with India got strained. Delhi backed the Madhesi allegation of discrimination at the hands of Kathmandu's elite and then Prime Minister KP Oli publicly declared that India's blockade of Nepal was in support of the cause of Madhesis.


Delhi denied Oli's charges, pointing out that the protests in the terai region had made it impossible for Indian truckers to risk their lives and the goods being carried. Landlocked Nepal is completely dependent on India for both its petroleum products as well as other essentials. It was a bitter falling out between the two countries more so because the ordinary Nepalese had to pay a heavy price for it. Oli turned to China for help and Beijing gladly reciprocated. After the agitation and blockade got over, Oli continued to play the China card. Like most Indian neighbours, who use Beijing to fend off Delhi, Kathmandu also uses the same trick.

The Nepalese monarchs had a tradition of balancing India's extensive hold on political parties by turning to China. A month after the Indian blockade was lifted, Oli visited China in March 2016 and signed a commercial agreement for alternative supply of petroleum products. In a bid to diversify its total dependence on India, Oli decided to ensure that 33 per cent of Nepal's annual demand of over one million tonnes of petroleum products would be sourced from China. Delhi's unease with Oli's pro-China stand ensured that Oli was dislodged by the Nepali Congress' Sher Bahadur Deuba.

Delhi, of course, refuted the accusations saying it was entirely a domestic issue of Nepal. If Oli does come to power with a strong majority, China will spread its wings further into India's backyard. Oli will not forget that Delhi had pulled the rug from under him and that China stood by him like a rock during the blockade in January 2016.

Yet, India's presence in Nepal is almost overwhelming.

People of India and Nepal share strong religious and cultural bonds making it easier for New Delhi to assert influence in the Himalayan country.

The fact that India and Nepal have an open border and thousands of Nepalese live and work across India, especially in the eastern and north-eastern states, has always been a major factor in the ties between the two countries. Strain in India-Nepal relations could adversely affect the livelihood of thousands of Nepali citizens and remittances that flow in from India could dry up. Indian officials, who do not want to be identified, say that no Nepalese government can afford to go against India.

Also while China's cheque-book diplomacy is a potent tool, geography also plays an important role. The China-Nepal border is a difficult mountainous terrain. Even the petroleum agreement signed with China during Oli's previous term in office would not be easy to work out. Poor connectivity and high costs of transportation through the rough Himalayan terrain would increase costs exponentially. As with petroleum products all other imports from China will have to come through the Himalayan gorges. But no Nepalese leader is in a position to turn its back on India.

So Kathmandu will do the balancing act between the two Asian powers. It is also a fact that the Nepalese have much more in common with India than with China. But India cannot afford to be complacent over this. The question that arises is where India has gone wrong. It is not enough to oppose an idea without putting an alternative deal on the table. If Delhi is opposed to Xi Jinping's OROB and maritime silk route, it has to offer an equally attractive alternative.

Sri Lanka had offered the Hambantota project initially to India. But Indian companies had refused come on board. India's big brother attitude needs to change.

Also read: Shashi Kapoor’s power lay in fitting into many different roles, yet remaining uniquely himself


Seema Guha Seema Guha @seemaguha1

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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