By: Meghali Deb, GSDN
The eastern South Asian country of Nepal, inhabited by diverse communities and religions, illustrates a vibrant history towards democratic commitments. The Himalayan country exemplified undaunted popular uprisings, Jan Andolan in pursuit of democracy on the global platform. Owing to the revolutionary movement of the Nepali population, the country witnessed a peaceful democratic transition to the multi-party system. Emboldened by the historical spirit, Nepal’s journey toward political stability is marked by constitutional perseverance, including the promulgation of the Constitution in 2015. Unlike the neighboring countries of India or China, Nepal began its political metamorphosis as recently as the 1990s and which culminated most recently in 2007 – 2015. Therefore, it is interesting to trace the main political actors and parties to the roots of epoch-making events in the history of Nepal. In 1990 with the advent of federal democracy, the Interim Government was formed under the leadership of K.P Bhattarai, a Nepali Congress leader.
Apart from Royal representatives, the nine-member Constitution Reform Commission comprised representatives from the two salient political parties: Nepali Congress and Communist Party. The history epitomizes the position of the Nepali Congress and the Communist party at the core of the democratic spirit of the country. The remarkable stature of Nepal in the broader international context, especially in neighboring China and India, can be examined by employing domestic actors in its electoral politics. Therefore, the reports reveal that New Delhi’s influence emanates from the close allegiance which is fostered with Nepali Congress; on the other hand, China exerts influence on Nepal through the communist parties in Nepal – Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist- Leninist) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre). To assess the post-election strategic relationships between Nepal and the two emerging giants of Asia – India, and China, it is pertinent to revisit the federal elections in Nepal in 2017. Therefore, the electoral victory of CPN’s -Leftist Alliance against NC’s Democratic Alliance reveals that the 2017 elections in Nepal were largely denoted in the favor of China. On the other hand, India was forced to feel the heat of its loss of influence over the nation’s domestic and international affairs. A series of transmuting developments at the regional and national level preceded the Nepal Elections 2017 and paved the prerequisites for Nepal Election 2022 to take place.
The events which represent imperative value in the history of Nepal include the catastrophic earthquake in Nepal, the promulgation of a new Constitution and the Madhesi conflict, and the Nepal-India border blockade in 2015. The following chain of events in the same year served Nepal’s vulnerability open to both New Delhi and Beijing for wresting their strategic dominance in the Himalayan country. India’s role in the first two events has been progressive towards reinforcing the trust of Nepal towards New Delhi, with the following steps: donating 1.54 billion (in Nepalese currency) for rehabilitating the Nepali population and also, ordering a rescue operation with the Indian Army called Operation Maitri after the destructive earthquake in 2015; Secondly, under the newly assumed leadership of Narendra Modi, laying down strategic and economic commitments with Nepal which included an emphasis on 4Cs – Cooperation, Connectivity, Culture and Constitution at the forefront and other endeavors such as the announcement of $ 1 Billion Line of Credit to Nepal, drawing the framework for a Power Trade Agreement, developments on the Project Development Agreement (PDA) between the Investment Board of Nepal and GMR Group of India for Upper Karnali Hydro projects and more. Despite the well-willed areas of partnership between India and its Northern neighbor, the relationship suffered a hostile juncture on the issue of the Madhesi tribe in the Terai region. Let us revisit in a quick glimpse, the Madhesi controversy across the Nepal-India borders which led to the blockade of supplies from India to Kathmandu. The Medhesis are the Bhojpuri-Maithili-Hindi speaking communities living in the Terai region, who share strong cultural ancestry with India. After the promulgation of the Nepali constitution in 2015, the Madhesis based their political resentment on the claims of depriving them of political representation, compromising the framework of inclusion, alienating them by carving federal units, and imposing discriminatory citizenship provisions. The protests took strength in the form of blockades across the borders which impeded the supplies of essential materials into Kathmandu. The Nepal government unleashed a violent crackdown against the protestors as a response, which led to nearly 40 fatalities. The volatile political condition in the Terai region led to strong ‘anti-Indian’ sentiments in Nepal, since the agitation was perceived to be allegedly kindled by the Indian Government. However, there are no stronger bases for supporting the allegation because it served no strategic, diplomatic, or economic purpose to India in exerting its influence in South Asia. Instead, the relationship between India-Nepal worsened to pave the strategy for China to seep into the political loopholes of Nepal. 2017 elections saw the rise of the Left alliance as a breakthrough for China and a huge setback for India.
The relationship between China and Nepal includes many ongoing development agreements and projects-Upper Trishuli Hydropower Project-Power station, Transmission Line Projects, Food/Material Assistance in Northern bordering districts, Kathmandu Ring Road Improvement Project, and more projects. Among a multitude of projects, the most distinguishing agreement includes the Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative on 12th May 2017 which paved the way for bilateral cooperation in the mutually agreed areas. The strategic cooperation between China and Nepal is fostered on the economic front with commercial loans. The interest rate and repayment period of loans sanctioned by China’s EXIM bank to specific nations do not follow the regulations of conventional and multilateral funding organizations like the World Bank and others. Therefore, the fleeting financial transparency between the two countries of China and Nepal has led the latter to the jeopardy of a debt trap. In the last 5 years, Nepal experienced negligible progress in culminating the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) towards the expected goal. Owing to a myriad of reasons which includes debt trap, huge displacements, and environmental degradation, not a single project has successfully been accomplished in 5 years. Triggered by the recent Sri- Lankan financial crisis, the opposition broke out in many places against the BRI initiative. Therefore, the above-mentioned events contributed to the strategic equation between India, Nepal, and China between the Nepal Elections in 2017 and 2022 both on the economic and cultural front. On the economic front, an aversion to China’s debt diplomacy led the commercial temperament in Nepal to incline towards India. The statement can be substantiated by the following example-the state-owned Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) sold electricity to the power exchange market of India by participating through competitive bidding. The strategic endeavor has encouraged the private sector in Nepal towards globalized participation with India.
On the cultural front, the definition of Hindutva was rebranded and became more prominent in Nepal following the influence of the right-wing BJP in India. Records suggest that K.P Sharma Oli as the former Prime Minister of Nepal has stirred Hindu nationalist sentiments. He went on record to claim that Madi in Nepal, instead of Ayodhya, is the birthplace of Lord Ram. He also became the first communist Prime Minister to offer prayers at the Pashupatinath Temple and to donate around $2.5 million of government funds towards the maintenance of the temple. The consecutive series of events bridged Nepal’s election in 2017 and 2022, which can be derived from the current electoral outcomes. The political tug-of-war in Nepal induced intense controversies and volatility among the alliances between Deuba’s Nepali Congress and Oli’s CPM-UML. Nepal’s most recent electoral processes have induced intriguing possibilities that will play out in the country’s political destiny very soon.