The final results of Nepal’s first parliamentary elections held ince 1999 are expected some time in mid-December. But on Saturday, the country’s election commission announced that a coalition of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist and the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre had won more than three-fourths of the seats in the federal assembly. This is not good news for India, which has long exerted an influence on the mountain-country’s politics and economy. The Left coalition, which will now take office, is likely to lean far more towards China than the incumbent Nepali Congress, the grand old party of Nepali politics.
Up and down
In 2006, with the end of the Nepalese civil war between the government and Maoists opposed to the constitutional monarchy, India took a commanding role in events in the Himalayan state. In 2015, it was first off the block in helping Nepal recover from a devastating earthquake that left close to 9,000 people dead. A year before that, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had made a much-publicised trip to Nepal.
But the India-Nepal relationship hit a hurdle in September 2015 when Kathmandu announced a new Constitution that gave less than adequate powers to ethnic groups such as the Madhesis in the country’s Terai region. The Madhesis speak Maithili, Bajika and Bhojpuri and share close ties with Matihili, Bajika and Bhojpuri groups across the border in the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
In response, a Madhesi border blockade stopped all essential supplies from India from reaching the hills of Nepal – a pressure tactic reportedly supported by New Delhi. The five-month blockade had a devastating effect on Nepal, which depends on India for almost all of its supplies. The country experienced severe shortages of petrol, medicines and even food.
Angered by India’s big brother stance, Nepal looked to China to balance New Delhi’s immense power over Kathmandu. In 2016, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli travelled to China and signed a transit agreement. This would give Nepal access to Chinese ports and connect the countries by rail. The two sides also discussed the possibility of China selling petroleum to Nepal – which, if achieved, would greatly reduce New Delhi’s leverage over Kathmandu.
This year, Nepal signed on to Beijing’s One Belt, One Road plan – an ambitious project to connect the Eurasian landmass with China at its engine. The agreement would further cement Nepal-China communication links. In August, Chinese Vice-Premier Wang Yang visited Nepal, making sure to visit leaders from the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist and the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre. China even played up its Buddhist links with Nepal, countering New Delhi’s Hindu card.
Oli’s use of the China card worked. The Modi government stepped back from its support of the Madhesis, encouraging them instead to take part in the elections.
The Madhesis’ participation in the polls is a big boost for Nepal. The country saw years of civil war and turmoil that ended just a little over a decade ago. Its new republican Constitution moves Nepal away from a unitary system to a federal state – even if the minorities in the Terai still feel short-changed in the new system. In a throwback to India’s own tumultuous decade of state formation in the 1940s, the largest Madhesi party, the Rastriya Janata Party, has called Nepal a multi-nation polity in its elections manifesto, inviting charges of separatism from Nepal’s hill elite.
The Left’s big win would in all probability mean that KP Oli will become prime minister. This is bad news for India. Oli had reached out to China in 2016. The 2017 campaign also saw Oli call for Chinese investment in Nepal. In November, the ruling Nepali Congress scrapped a major Chinese hydropower project that the Communist alliance has promised to bring back if it comes to power.
The sudden uptick in China’s fortunes in Nepal mirrors Maldives, where China-backed Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom had defeated the candidate supported by India in the 2013 presidential elections, sharply reducing New Delhi’s influence in the country.
China has also developed close links with Sri Lanka, which has joined the One Belt, One Road plan. Another close Indian ally, Bangladesh, has signed on to the project as well. In response to India’s $2-billion credit line to Bangladesh, China offered it $24 billion in credit in 2016, making it the country’s biggest foreign credit line. China also sold Dhaka its first two submarines in 2017.