The article discusses the current political crisis in Nepal and how the geopolitical and strategic factors and the dominating influence of China in Nepal will affect India. It also highlights Nepal’s role in India’s internal security architecture and the need for India to strengthen relations with its neighbour.
The Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal has plunged into a political crisis after Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli recommended the dissolution of 275 member House of Representatives on December 20, 2020, following the rift in the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP). Acting on the Prime Minister’s recommendations, President BD Bhandari dissolved the House and announced fresh polls during April-May, 2021 evoking widespread protests in Nepal, mainly at the instance of the rival faction of the NCP led by the former Prime Minister and co-Chairman of the NCP, Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka ‘Prachanda’.While the public protests against the dissolution of the House are gaining momentum, the constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court of Nepal has started hearing a dozen petitions challenging the President’s decision. No doubt, the decision of the Supreme Court will influence the future turn of events.
Meanwhile, Prachanda who claims two-thirds majority in the NCP has started the ‘purging’ exercise in the party in order to capture its official status and the party symbol prior to the proposed elections in 2021. He has occupied the post of parliamentary party leader replacing Oli, whereas his protégé Madhav Kumar Nepal has been appointed as the co- chairman of the party in the place of Oli. With his background as a highly committed Maoist leader who played a historic role during a decade-long Maoist insurgency in Nepal (1996-2006), Prachanda has considerable support in the key organisational bodies of the NCP. Fully aware of this fact and his imminent unceremonious removal from the Prime Minister post, Oli took the surprise move of dissolving the House.
In fact, the present political crisis in Nepal has a long history of the power struggle between these two prominent leaders, which to a great extent was camouflaged or contained through the intervention of the Chinese Communist leaders, from time to time. The seeds of these differences were sown during Prachanda-led Maoist insurgency (1996-2006) which witnessed summary execution, massacre, kidnapping and war crimes resulting in the death of around 17,000 people and displacement of thousands of Nepalis from their motherland. As an underground Maoist outfit fully committed to the Maoist-Leninist doctrine, ‘Prachanda group’ had fully justified such methods in pursuance of its strategy of overthrowing Nepali monarchy and establishing People’s Republic. The moderate Marxist-Leninist liners such as KP Oli were against the large-scale violence or atrocities in their struggles to end monarchy. However, with the cessation of Maoist insurgency after inking the Comprehensive Peace Accord in 2006, both the leaders had come closer on a common political platform.
The 2017 elections in which the Maoists made an impressive victory by capturing 175 out of 275 seats in the Parliament was a turning point in the relations between these two leaders. Just after a year, the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) led by Oli and the Nepal Communist Party (Maoist Centre) headed by Prachanda merged and formed the Nepal Communist Party (NCP). The Communist Party of China, particularly Guo Yezhou, the Vice Minister, International Department played a pivotal role in the merger of these two Communist parties which now occupy major space in Nepal politics. Both these leaders, despite their internal differences and conflicts, maintained a pro-Beijing line almost on all major issues affecting China.
Ever since the schism developed in the NCP, the Chinese leaders worked overtime to sort out the differences between these two leaders in order to maintain the monolithic structure of the NCP. Thus, in early July 2020 when Prachanda fired the first salvo against Oli on charges of corruption and misrule, Hou Yanqi — the Chinese Ambassador in Kathmandu — met Prachanda and other leaders to defuse the crisis. The Ambassador remained at the central stage as trouble-shooter when the crisis had precipitated with the President’s assent for the dissolution of the House. She had interaction with the President and the leaders of the warring factions. As the stalemate continued, a high-level Chinese delegation led by Guo Yezhou visited Nepal recently. Guo Yezhou’s visit assumes considerable significance as he, as a key architect of the merger of CPN (UML) and NCP (Maoist Centre), has decisive influence over the leaders of these parties including Oli and Prachanda. The Chinese approach is that even if the warring leaders do not bury the hatchet of their differences, their factions should not fight each other in the forthcoming elections and pave the way for the emergence of a pro-Indian party or alliance in Nepal.
Truly speaking, Chinese policy towards Nepal is India-centric. Over the last one decade, China has been wooing successive rulers in Kathmandu to pursue an anti-India line by focusing on regional or internal issues. A typical example was the week-long blockade of materials to Kathmandu imposed by Maoists in 2004 during the peak of their guerrilla war. When the Indian government along with many western countries had suspended material supplies to Nepal declaring solidarity with the demands of the Maoist parties, China despatched supply despite ideological affinity with Maoists. A similar strategy was adopted by the Chinese government during the two months’ blockade of Indian borders with Nepal as part of the struggle by Madheshis against the enactment of the new Constitution of Nepal, allegedly ignoring their rights. The Chinese propaganda was that India’s support to the protesters in Madhesh, having their roots in India, had aggravated the humanitarian crisis in Nepal which was struggling to get back to normalcy after the devastating earthquake in 2015. Through such strategies and campaigns, China could establish cordial relations with Nepal including in the Defence sector.
India has pressing geo-strategic reasons to strengthen her relations with Nepal. Not only that Nepal is our immediate neighbour but also that Nepal is strategically placed within India’s larger security envelope in relation to China. That is why some observers see Nepal as not landlocked but ‘India-landlocked’. New Delhi’s new project of 80 km road connecting Dharchula in Uttarakhand with Lipulekh Pass, adjoining the tri-junction of India, China and Nepal, has given added strategic leverage to India in relation to China. It was at the instance of China that Nepal has made claims on some of these areas. Further, the Oli government published a new map which showed around 400 square km of India’s areas in Kalapani, Lipulekh Pass and Limpiyadhura as part of Nepal. The above move which was formally endorsed by the Nepal Parliament has strained the relations between the two countries.
Nepal’s role in our internal security architecture needs special mention. Many terror and insurgent groups such as Al-Qaida, Taliban, LeT, Jaish-e- Mohammed, etc use Kathmandu and other parts of Nepal as a transit base or rendezvous for their clandestine operations against India. It is also a safe haven of drug mafia, hawala-operators and human trafficking syndicates. The harmonious relations between the two countries, on many occasions, had enabled Indian enforcement and investigation agencies to nab dreaded terrorists or underworld dons commuting between India and Kathmandu. Another area of concern from an internal security angle is the linkages or nexus between the Maoist groups operating in India and Nepal. The Red Corridor envisaged by the CPI (Maoists) of India extends from the Southern Nepal bordering Terai region of Uttar Pradesh to the tri-junction of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in the Western Ghats. Though the major Maoist parties like the CPN (UML) and NCP (Maoists centre) had shunned the path of revolution and joined the mainstream politics, the fire ignited by the Maoists in Nepal has not been fully doused. The flickers of armed struggle have been kept alive by splinter groups like the Communist Party of Nepal (Netra Vikram Chand aka Biplab) which is now under ban after a series of bomb explosions and violent incidents, particularly during the 2017 elections.
Such geopolitical and strategic factors and the dominating influence of China in Nepal have prompted the Indian government to adopt a cautious approach in respect of the ongoing political crisis in Nepal. Describing the crisis as ‘internal affairs’ of Nepal, India does not intend to identify with any of the leaders of the warring factions of the NCP. On the other hand, as highlighted by the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, the ongoing negotiations and discussions on issues like boundary dispute would be taken forward through appropriate bilateral mechanisms. The conducive climate for the same has been created during the recent visit of Army Chief General MM Narvana and Foreign secretary Harsha Sheringla to Nepal and the discussions with their counterparts. The message is clear: ‘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’. The crucial question is whether such a message would be appealing to the leader who would emerge to the seat of power in Kathmandu after the proposed elections in 2021?
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.
Featured Image Source: Nepali Times