When China’s outgoing ambassador to Nepal, Hou Yanqi, recently penned an article in The Kathmandu Post, she made it a point to take note of the upcoming parliamentary elections and hoped bilateral relations would “continue to reach new levels”.
Beijing’s broad hint seeking continuation of robust bilateral ties regardless of who wins was unmistakable. For China has a lot at stake in the November 20 poll outcome. So does Nepal’s other big neighbour, India.
The two Asian giants have been locked in a high stakes battle for influence in Nepal that lies geographically sandwiched between them. Both want a ‘friendly’ government in Kathmandu a few weeks from now.
China and India aren’t the only two anxiously awaiting the results of Nepal’s polls, though. The US is equally interested in who emerges the winner amidst its bitter rivalry with China in the region.
To counter China’s multi-billion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the Indo-Pacific, which Nepal has joined, the US invested a huge amount of diplomatic capital over the last one year to ensure it got Kathmandu on board for its own $500-million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact that envisages the building of roads and energy infrastructure in Nepal.
Washington, however, has been unable to get Kathmandu on board for its State Partnership Programme (SPP) which, on the face of it, involved the Nepal Army working with the Utah State National Guard on “humanitarian and disaster management” issues. But the SPP does have an underlying military intent and the intention to get Nepal on board the American Indo-Pacific strategy.
All three – New Delhi, Beijing and Washington – would be looking to have a government in Kathmandu that would protect, even promote, their strategic interests once elections for the 275-member House of Representatives (Pratinidhi Sabha) and its seven provincial assemblies are over.
For now, two motley electoral alliances have been forged with the same old, ageing warhorses seeking to lead the government. While one alliance is led by current Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba who leads the Nepali Congress, the other is helmed by former PM K P Sharma Oli of the Communist Party of Nepal–Unified Marxist Leninist.
With Nepalese leaders driven by political expediency and opportunism rather than ideology, it’s not surprising that Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, once part of the grand Communist alliance, is now part of the Deuba-led coalition.
Also part of the ruling alliance is another former PM, Madhav Kumar Nepal. He parted ways with Oli last year after complaining of his authoritarian ways, splitting the CPN-UML. He now leads the newly formed Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Socialist).
For India, a stable government in Nepal that would keep its strategic interests in mind is critical. However, given the notoriety Nepalese leaders have acquired, driven by their unquenchable thirst for power and the prime ministership, stability is unlikely even in the next government.
The China-leaning Oli as PM gave New Delhi a rather rough time, apart from creating tremendous political turbulence within Nepal to ensure his government’s survival. He whipped up nationalist sentiments to the hilt, even altering Nepal’s map over the Kalapani territorial dispute with India. As a result, New Delhi-Kathmandu ties turned decidedly frosty under him.
The thaw came after Deuba, perceived as being pro-India, took over as PM in July last year. New Delhi would probably be placing its bets on Deuba returning to helm the government, though a coalition government would make his position tenuous, too.
India, which once considered Nepal its backyard given its civilizational and cultural links and geographic proximity, has seen its influence wane there even as China has made deep inroads, wooing the country with its resources and infrastructure projects.
Even more worryingly for India, Beijing has managed to build close ties with Nepalese leaders straddling the political spectrum and not just with the Communist parties. The poll outcome, therefore, is all the more crucial for New Delhi.
A measure of Chinese tentacles having spread into Nepal’s polity can be had from the fact that the outgoing Chinese envoy openly tried to be ‘peace-maker’ around two years ago to keep the warring factions of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) together when Oli was PM.
Beijing worked hard to get the Communists -– the Oli-led CPN-UML and Dahal-led CPN (Maoist Centre) — to come together. While this front fell apart, thanks to the intense jostling for power between Oli and Dahal, India knows only too well that China will continue with its efforts to ensure that the Communist-led coalition wins. New Delhi will be keeping its fingers crossed, in the hope that the new political dispensation in Kathmandu is a stable and favourable one.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist)