Nepal's political crisis an advantage for India?

Nepal's political crisis an advantage for India?

Nepal’s ruling party is on the verge of a split, and that may be to India’s advantage

A day after Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal, a.k.a Prachanda, merged on May 17, 2018, China welcomed the amalgamation and the birth of the new Nepal Communist Party (NCP). “As a good neighbour and friend, China supports Nepal’s independent choice for the social system and development path that suits its own national conditions and we welcome the merging of the two parties,” Lu Kang, a spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in Beijing, vowing to continue “mutual cooperation for the benefit of both the countries and people”.

Just two and a half years later, China’s ambassador to Nepal, Hou Yanqi, had to spend the best part of the past week, driving around in Kathmandu – frantically meeting the NCP leaders and even Nepal’s President, to attempt to save the party from an imminent split.

On the morning of December 20, Oli made a drastic move to foil Prachanda’s attempts to oust him from the office of Prime Minister. He recommended dissolution of the ‘Pratinidhi Sabha’ or the lower house of the Federal Parliament of Nepal. President Bidya Devi Bhandari acted on his recommendation and announced that general elections would be held in April-May 2021 – more than a year ahead of schedule. Oli’s critics within the NCP, led by former prime ministers Prachanda and Madhav Kumar Nepal, called the move to dissolve the Pratinidhi Sabha “undemocratic, autocratic and unconstitutional”. As many as seven ministers owing allegiance to the anti-Oli faction of the NCP resigned. The supporters of Prachanda and Nepal took to the streets, protesting against Oli’s move, which has been challenged in the country’s Supreme Court.

The Prachanda-Nepal faction of the NCP removed Oli as the party’s joint-chairman (along with Prachanda) and as its parliamentary leader. Nepal replaced Oli as the NCP’s joint chairman, while Prachanda, who continues to hold the other chairman’s post, has been appointed as the party’s new parliamentary leader.

The Oli faction struck back and replaced Narayan Kaji Shreshtha, a confidante of Prachanda and Nepal, with Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali as the new spokesperson of the party.

The two rival factions are now holding separate “meetings of the central committee” of the party – ostensibly to prepare the ground to claim the Election Commission’s endorsement as the official NCP and retain its election symbol.

When the two communist parties had merged in May 2018, the new-born NCP had turned into a formidable political force, with 175 of the 275 members of the Pratinidhi Sabha owing allegiance to it. The party has been leading local governments in six out of seven provinces in the country. But the trouble, which started at the top, quickly went down the line this week, immediately putting in jeopardy at least two provincial governments.

The infighting within the NCP has its root in the deal that Oli and Prachanda had struck when they merged their respective parties. Oli had taken over as PM after the 2017 elections. But, at the time of the merger, he had purportedly agreed to step down after two-and-a-half years and make way for Prachanda. Oli refused to keep his side of the bargain. The bickering within the party started to come to the fore early this year.

Hou, Beijing’s envoy to Kathmandu, has been mediating between the two factions of the NCP and she initially did succeed in dousing the fire. But it rekindled over the past few weeks. Prachanda presented a 19-page-document at a meeting of the NCP secretariat last month, accusing Oli of corruption and of taking decisions without consulting the party. Oli responded with a 38-page document, dismissing the corruption allegations and accusing Prachanda of non-cooperation in running the party and the government. With the dissolution of the Pratinidhi Sabha, the infighting within the party has reached a flashpoint.

The merger of the two communist parties in 2018 had marked a significant success for China, in its long-term bid to elbow out India and spread its geopolitical influence in Nepal. It had come three years after India had for the first time appeared to have started to lose clout in Nepal. Amid a controversy over an alleged slight to the Madheshi and Tharu communities in the new Constitution of Nepal in 2015, India had been accused of imposing an economic blockade that had choked supplies of essentials to Nepal for weeks. Beijing had since taken advantage of the growing sentiment against New Delhi in Nepal. In May 2018, it had finally found in the NCP a tool to draw Kathmandu into its orbit. No wonder it could make the Oli government ratchet up a territorial dispute with New Delhi late last year and again earlier this year, even as the Indian Army was deploying large numbers of troops along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China to respond to the Chinese army’s bid to grab territory and push the LAC further westwards from it in Ladakh.

Kathmandu played into Beijing’s hands, lodging a protest over a new 80-km-long road New Delhi had built from Dharchula in Uttarakhand to the Lipulekh Pass – an India-Nepal-China tri-junction boundary point. It alleged that the road passed through Nepali territory – a claim dismissed by India. The Oli government pushed ahead and published a new map that showed nearly 400 sq km of India’s areas in Kalapani, Lipulekh Pass and Limpiyadhura as part of Nepal. It also got the Nepali parliament to amend the Constitution to endorse the new map.

So, as the NCP, China’s baby in Nepal, is in crisis now, does it augur well for India?

Since Oli apparently acted at the behest of Beijing and upped the ante against New Delhi, if the current crisis in the NCP leads to his exit from the office of PM, it would possibly be cheered in India. But a change of regime in Kathmandu would not necessarily help bring India-Nepal relations back on track, at least not until India can be sure that the new head of the government in Kathmandu would not dance to Beijing’s tune. It was during Prachanda’s first tenure as PM in 2008-9 that Nepal’s drift toward China started. He did signal his willingness to maintain a balance in Kathmandu’s relations with both Beijing and New Delhi during his second term in 2016-17, but New Delhi is well aware of the former rebel leader’s ideological allegiance to the Communist Party of China.

The crisis in the ruling NCP has opened up an opportunity for the opposition Nepali Congress, but it would have to move fast to strengthen its organisation to present itself in the next election as a suitable alternative capable of ensuring political stability in Nepal.

New Delhi took note of the latest political developments in Kathmandu but refrained from making any comment on what it called the “internal affairs” of Nepal. Though the Oli government did do its bit over the past year to sour the relations between the two neighbours, New Delhi did, of late, reach out to Kathmandu and made attempts to mend ties. The Chief of the Army Staff, Gen M M Naravane, and Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla visited Nepal last month. Gen Naravane held a meeting with Nepalese Army chief Gen Purna Chandra Thapa. He also called on Nepal’s President, who conferred on him the honorary rank of General in the Nepalese Army, in keeping with a 70-year-old tradition of friendly gestures between the armed forces of the two nations. Shringla and his counterpart in Nepal, Bharat Raj Paudyal, had exchanged views on the boundary dispute and discussed “ways to take it forward” through an “appropriate bilateral mechanism”. Both Naravane and Shringla had also called on Oli. New Delhi used the visit of the Foreign Secretary to Kathmandu to highlight India’s support to development projects in Nepal.

And, as the crisis within the NCP worsened this month, New Delhi had limited itself to stating that India, being a neighbour and well-wisher, would “continue to support Nepal and its people in moving forward on the path of peace, prosperity and development”.