India will be keeping a close eye on the emerging political landscape in Nepal, where the result of the general election for the national parliament and seven provincial assemblies will be formally announced later this week.
Initial trends are now consolidating to clear the early haze about the outcome of the November 20 poll which, with a turnout of 61 percent, saw lower participation than the last two elections in the Himalayan republic. Even if the early counting indicated an inconclusive verdict, the last two days have made it clear that the five-party alliance led by the Nepali Congress is headed to win a majority in the parliament.
Nepal has a dual-method election to parliament, which includes the house of representatives. Out of 275 members, 165 are elected through direct voting. The remaining 110 are elected through a proportional electoral system. This means a party or alliance needs at least 138 seats to form a majority government.
The five-party alliance comprises the Nepali Congress led by incumbent prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Socialist), the Loktantrik Samajwadi Party, and the Rashtriya Janamorcha. Of the 158 results declared so far, the alliance has won 85 in the house of representatives under direct election. The Nepali Congress, securing 53 seats so far, is also set to emerge as the single largest party.
Meanwhile, the rival alliance of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), led by former prime minister KP Sharma Oli, has secured 56 seats.
In a visible break from its approach in the past, India has chosen to keep a low profile about this election in its northeastern neighbourhood. That, however, does not mean it can afford any indifference to weighing the implications of the results on its Nepal policy. From New Delhi’s point of view, the outcome so far seems a mixed bag though favourable overall. India would be mindful of these metrics while gauging the political tide in Kathmandu.
First, the chances of the Sher Bahadur Deuba-led Nepali Congress and CPN (MC) combine of five parties retaining power might better suit India. New Delhi will primarily view the result through a Beijing prism and what it could do to neutralise the Chinese appetite for heft in the Himalayan region. With only a slim chance of a hung assembly, the prospect of a reunion of the communist parties for power have also dwindled.
This will not please Chinese strategists who have been working towards a sway over Nepali power arrangements through a merger of communist parties. However, the provided a severe jolt to this short-lived merger and, in fact, paved the way for the reentry of the Nepali Congress in a rival, powerful alliance with the Prachanda-led CPN (MC).
It was also a time when India was cautious in weighing in on how the Chinese foray into influencing Nepali power politics had grappled with the dynamics of powerplay in Kathmandu. If one recalls the last decade, the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu had played a significant role in the merger of Nepal’s two distinct communist parties: Prachanda’s CPN (MC) and Oli’s CPN (UML). Their merger into a single entity, the Nepal Communist Party, had been preceded by the victory of the alliance in the 2017 election.
Moreover, China wielded considerable sway over the NCP government. As this author wrote in January last year:
“Oli, in particular, is known for his pro-China tilt. While disagreements and power tussles regularly surfaced between the NCP’s two factions, China’s ambassador Hou Yanqi mediated to ensure the combined front’s continuity in power. In 2020, a section of the Nepali media was even asked whether China was ‘micromanaging’ Nepali politics.
“...China’s growing clout in Nepal has also coincided with new challenges in India’s ties with its Himalayan neighbour. Last year, Oli’s government took the unilateral decision to draw new maps that showed the Indian territories of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura as belonging to Nepal. This clearly dubious and historically weak claim was either instigated by the Chinese foreign office or was a part of the government’s effort to create a new support base among Nepali voters.”
But the return of the Nepali Congress-led coalition government might also mean the US will look for diplomatic leverage through the US State Partnership Program. It’s expected, however, that such efforts from Washington are likely to be met by resistance from Kathmandu in so far as it is seen impinging on Nepal’s sovereign rights. Even neighbouring powers like India would like to assess and neutralise the extent of America’s elbow-room in Nepal.
Second, India would also be interested in evaluating how mainstream parties in Nepal have new challengers like the Rashtriya Swatantra Party. The largely urban party has been vocal against Nepal’s federal setup and has even demanded the dissolution of provincial assemblies. This is obviously a new stream of political discourse in Nepal and challenges what was earlier seen as a federalist consensus. This comes at a time when the Madhesi parties, steeped in the federalist structure of Nepali polity, have suffered a significant setback in the poll. It’s likely that the debate on federalism and its forms might increasingly find space in Nepali politics – something that might nudge India to look at its own view of Madhesi politics in a new light.
In the meantime, the security concerns and India-China rivalry to find leverage in the regional power in Nepal is likely to enter another round when a new government takes charge in Kathmandu. While the prickly map issue is likely to be shelved in India-Nepal as an irritant, the Chinese government would like to iron out the BRI projects and other MoU implementation issues that have been a cause for concern in Beijing’s ties.
In whatever form these bilateral possibilities take in the months to come, the poll outcomes are likely to roll out a new turf for the two-power race for slices of influence in Nepal.
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