New Delhi: Nepal’s Left alliance—forged between the country’s former Maoist rebels and the Communists—seemed headed for a victory in elections aimed at completing the Himalayan nation’s transition to democracy after the abolition of monarchy and an end of civil war there.
They have won a majority of seats in parliamentary elections and are expected to form the next government, according to preliminary results from the election commission late Sunday, reported AFP.
The two-phased Nepal elections, for which voting was held on 26 November and 7 December, had pit the centrist Nepali Congress party of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, who heads a loose alliance that includes the Madhesi parties from Nepal’s southern plains and former royalists, against the tight-knit alliance of former Maoists and the moderate Communist UML party.
The left alliance has won 84 seats in the national parliament and leads in a further 31, securing a majority.
The trends so far suggest that Nepal is on course for a stable government, which may be a source of relief given that the country has seen some 10 changes in government in as many years with instability giving rise to corruption, retarded growth and slow recovery from a 2015 earthquake that killed 9,000 people. There are 165 seats to be decided on a first-past-the-post basis with another 110 seats that will be decided by proportional representation.
The Left alliance coming to power cannot be seen as good news for India given that it could bring former Nepalese prime minister K.P. Oli—who had a difficult relationship with India the last time he was prime minister—back to power. The alliance is seen as closer to China and the Nepali Congress seen as pro-India.
Nepal is seen to play the role of a natural buffer between Asian giants and the outcome seems to indicate that China gets the upper hand in the battle for influence in a country with immense hydel power potential.
So what are the implications for India if the Left alliance forms a government in Nepal?
It calls to question India’s “neighbourhood first"policy, say analysts
At his swearing in ceremony on 26 May 2014, Prime minister Narendra Modi ensured that the leaders of all India’s immediate neighbours in South Asia—and Mauritius—were present. This underlined the priority that India’s immediate periphery would get during the Modi government’s tenure in office. Nepal is one of the few countries in India’s immediate neighbourhood that Modi has visited twice—the other being Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.
New Delhi was the first responder after the devastating 25 April 2015 Nepal earthquake, with the Modi government mobilising resources and manpower to ensure relief reached within hours. Besides this, India and Nepal are seen to share a special relationship—with an open border and Nepalese nationals living and working in India besides being able to serve in the Indian army and rise up the ranks to the position of a three star general, said C.U. Bhaskar, director at the Society for Policy Studies. But ties frayed when India was seen as imposing an economic blockade against Nepal when its new constitution seemed to ignore adequate political representation to the Tharus, Janjatis and the Madhesis—constituting some 51% of the population.
India, on its part, said that it was the Madhesi protestors—demanding amendments to the new constitution—who were blocking the roads and not allowing essential supplies to go through. The seeming blockade by India, however, turned the sentiment against Nepal’s giant southern neighbour. According to Bhaskar, the Left alliance apparently cruising to a victory “shows up the inadequacies in the neighbourhood first policy. It shows that our understanding of Nepal’s domestic policy has been below the median".
Chinese influence in Nepal likely to increase
Given that it was China that played a role behind the scenes and brought together the Maoists and the Communists, it is evident that should the alliance win a majority, China’s influence in Nepal would go up. India and China have been vying for influence in almost all countries in India’s immediate neighbourhood with New Delhi keeping a wary eye on Chinese economic assistance and infrastructure projects that will pull Nepal into China’s economic embrace. The Leftists coming to power means increased Chinese presence in India’s periphery—something New Delhi would definitely not want.
Nepal could become a foreign policy challenge for India
This might happen if Oli becomes prime minister given his closeness to China. Last year, Oli visited China after of course a visit to India. In China, Oli signed a transit agreement that includes access to Chinese ports as well as the potential construction of rail links between Nepal and China. The two countries also explored the possibility of China supplying petroleum products to Nepal. These were seen as a direct attempt by landlocked Nepal to reduce its dependence on India for trade and commerce as well as essential supplies—after the so-called blockade by India.
The Leftists coming to power and especially with Oli as prime minister, “it will make the management of our diplomatic relations with Nepal more difficult and complicated," said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, adding that New Delhi will be keen to see that Nepal does not become a platform for creating insecurities for itself. New Delhi will also be keen to see whether the Madhesis and others get a fair representation in Nepal’s polity or not—something Oli was seen as opposed to. “Any upsurge in Madhes will have a destabilising effect on India", given the open borders between the two countries, Sibal said.