Oli's second coming

Last Updated 16 January 2018, 19:35 IST

Khadga Prasad Oli will return to power as the 11th Prime Minister of the 'Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal' since the abolishment of the Shah-monarchy in 2008. The veteran leader of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) or CPN UML, was earlier Prime Minister of Nepal from Oct 2015 to August 2016, besides having been previously Nepal's foreign minister (2006-07) and home minister (1994-95).

In the elections in November-December 2017, the 'Left Alliance' of the two principal Communist parties, Oli's CPN-UML and Pushpa Kamal Dahal's CPN (Maoist-Centre), won a joint victory in the bicameral legislature (House of Representatives and National Assembly) and in the state assemblies. These elections were closely watched by both Delhi and Beijing as, for once, a stable leadership was expected in Kathmandu given the restraining clauses that have come into play after the adoption of the new constitution in 2015.

The landlocked Himalayan country, flanked by competing geopolitical rivals China and India, will inevitably witness hectic pitching for influence and strategic sweepstakes. The centrist Nepali Congress was perceived to be pro-India, whereas the nationalistic, rejectionist and assertive tenor of the 'Left alliance' was believed to be the preferred dispensation of the Chinese. Therefore, for India, the challenge of handling and managing Oli in his second coming as prime minister.

'Dhruba', as Oli was known in his younger days, was a precocious chess player and given to writing fiery nationalistic poems - both early indicators of his proclivity and dexterity in the rumble-tumble of Nepalese politics, which has evolved from the absolutism of the monarchy era, the anarchical spirit accompanying the Communist/Maoist resistance to, finally, reconciliation and adapting to the democratic framework and the geopolitical opportunities of today.

Oli's baptism into the violent communist resistance in 1966 saw him rise quickly within the ranks and play a leadership role in the infamous Jhapa rebellion that saw the beheadings of feudal landlords, which ultimately put Oli behind bars for 14 years. The providential timing of his release coincided with the greenshoots of the democratic movement in Nepal, and Oli was poised to take the centre stage in Nepalese politics, first as the central committee member of CPM-ML and then as the founding chairman of Prajatantrik Rashtriya Yuwa Sangh.

The roller-coaster ride of Nepalese politics soon saw Oli become prime minister in Oct 2015, supported - incredibly - by the royalist and pro-monarchy Rashtryia Prajatantra Party and the Madhesi Rights Forum-Democratic, besides the Maoists and 13 other smaller parties.

Ironically, it was the Maoists who pulled the rug from under Oli's feet in less than 10 months, only for the two to soon join hands and form the 'Left Alliance'. The intra-Left intrigues notwithstanding, Oli has firmly established his personal credentials as the leading voice against the centrist Nepali Congress, taking an ultra-nationalist and unsubtly anti-India stand (and by default, pro-China), aided by popular perceptions of Delhi's hand in the debilitating and humiliating economic blockade of 2015.

Oli, the Machiavellian politician, had been quick to nail his political stance to the powerful and restive emotions of 'national pride' to establish the damaging perception that the Nepali Congress was hand-in-glove with Delhi, and posited his own proximity and preference with the ever-willing Beijing as a credible alternative. The unsavoury term 'foreign hand' in Kathmandu, has acquired an unmistakable Indian context and the inherent message in the optics of the prime minister-in-waiting making a surprise visit to the Chinese trade and transit point in Rasuwagahdi, makes Delhi wary of Oli's second coming.

Traditionally, the first international visit by every Nepalese prime minister has been to India.  Oli's move to visit Rasuwagahdi-Kerung on the Nepal-China border, which is symbolically seen as an alternative to Birgunj on the Nepal-India border, holds vivid portents of Oli's 'balanced' foreign policy!

Beyond the political tactics of pitchforking China into the Indo-Nepalese realm, the reality is that over two-thirds of Nepal's trade is still with India. With life-sustaining imports a staggering nine-times that of exports, the Chinese are still far from offering a viable and sustainable option to that of India. Oli, the quintessential politician would know the limits and consequences of pandering to the Chinese beyond a point (for example, the fate of neighbouring Tibet and, more recently, Bhutan). Similarly, Delhi, too, must understand the sensitivities of 'big-brother' perceptions and those of interference in the internal affairs of Nepal. Unlike the expansionist agenda of China, there is much in common and comfort in dealing with India - the civilisational, cultural and fraternal connect that has overridden many challenges in Indo- Nepal relations since Independence.

Beyond economics and diplomacy, the emotive umbilical cord of the irrepressible Nepali Gorkhas in the Indian armed forces is the best example of Indo-Nepal trust and faith in each other. Befittingly, the serving and the previous chief of the Indian Army have been proud Gorkha officers - with the incumbent General Bipin Rawat hailing from 5/11 Gorkha Rifles, which is primarily composed of Rais, Limbus and Sunuwars from Nepal. General Rawat is a second generation Gorkha officer. His father Lt Gen L S Rawat was also from the Gorkhas. This, besides the reciprocal dignity of freely allowing citizens to travel between the two nations, is unparalleled among Asian countries.

Oli does have a certain ideological and political agenda that needs to be recognised and accommodated with care, dignity and requisite investments. The wounds of his first innings are still fresh and Delhi must tread carefully to address the same, whilst explaining in no uncertain terms the futility of overplaying the Chinese card, given its track record in the neighbourhood and globally. Nepal is truly a 'natural' ally of India from all possible angles, and Oli, a thoroughbred politician, should know that and benefit from it.

(The writer is a former Lt Gen in the Indian Army and former Lt-Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Puducherry)

(Published 16 January 2018, 17:56 IST)

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