Nepal

A new Left alliance

Print edition : November 10, 2017

Pushpa Kamal Dahal "Prachanda". Photo: NAVESH CHITRAKAR/REUTERS

K.P. Oli. Photo: NAVESH CHITRAKAR/REUTERS

Baburam Bhattarai. Photo: S. SUBRAMANIUM

Vehicles waiting to cross the India-Nepal border from Sonauli area of Uttar Pradesh in September 2015. The blockades imposed by India on landlocked Nepal have cost it a lot of goodwill among ordinary Nepalese. Photo: R.V. MOORTHY

In an increasingly polarised political environment in Nepal, all the Left parties form a “grand alliance” to fight the provincial and national elections scheduled to be held before the end of the year.

WITH provincial and national elections just around the corner, politics in Nepal is witnessing unprecedented churning. Provincial elections are scheduled to be held on November 24 and parliamentary elections on December 5. The Left parties, which were until recently at each other’s throats, have made the announcement about their intention to fight the elections under a united banner. The Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), or the CPN-UML led by K.P. Oli; the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) led by Pushp Kumar Dahal “Prachanda”; and the Naya Shakti Party will join hands in the elections for the first time. Baburam Bhattarai, who until recently was the second most important leader of the CPN-Maoists, left that party to float the Naya Shakti. The three parties have pledged to merge into one unified communist party after the elections.

The announcement of a “grand alliance”, made in the first week of October, took the opposition parties, especially the Nepali Congress, by surprise. The Nepali Congress has been in alliance with the Maoists. Prachanda had ditched Oli midway last year and opted for a coalition with the Nepali Congress.

Reportedly, the Indian government had an important role to play in patching up what many Nepalese view was an opportunistic coalition. Prachanda was also angry with Oli for not adhering to the “gentleman’s agreement” reached between the CPN-UML and the Maoists before the formation of the government that Oli would step down after completing half the term and hand over power to Prachanda. The Nepali Congress and the Maoists then worked out a power-sharing formula and ousted Oli, and Prachanda became the Prime Minister. A couple of months ago, he ceded office to Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress as per the agreement.

The Indian political establishment also seems to have been taken aback by the sudden developments. The Indian government would have preferred a continuation of the power-sharing arrangement between the Nepali Congress and the Maoists and an alliance between the two parties to fight the CPN-UML.

India’s missteps

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in India has been steadily losing influence in the corridors of power in Nepal because of a series of missteps. India’s diminishing influence in Nepal is instead being blamed on Nepal’s other big neighbour, China.

There are tendentious reports that the “Left unity” in Nepal was engineered from Beijing so as to advance China’s national interests. For a long time, China has scrupulously avoided interfering in the internal affairs of other countries. In fact, all the political parties in Nepal, including the Nepali Congress, have excellent relations with China. All the major political parties in Nepal now make it a point to take a neutral stance in disputes involving India and China. Significantly, on the Doklam issue, Nepal chose to remain quiet despite the Nepali Congress leader holding the Prime Minister’s post at the time.

The most serious Indian foreign policy blunder under the National Democratic Alliance II, according to many observers, was the five-month blockade imposed on Nepal from September 2015 to February 2016. It came at a time when the Madhesi’s agitation against the new Nepal Constitution demanding more political representation for them was at its peak.

It is widely perceived that New Delhi had a role in ousting Oli from the Prime Minister’s post earlier in the year. The government in New Delhi apparently viewed Oli as uncompromising on the Madhesi issue and on the demand to further amend the Constitution. Even more damning, from India’s point of view, was his alleged tilt towards China. The communist alliance is considered the front runner in the electoral race. The two major communist parties, fighting separately, had together attracted the majority of votes polled in recent elections. The CPN-UML had got the second largest number of seats in Parliament and the Maoists had come third. The Nepali Congress got the largest number of seats in Parliament but not enough to rule on its own. Electoral arithmetic is expected to give the Left alliance the upper hand in the coming elections as it now has the largest vote bank. Nepal has adopted a proportional electoral system, giving a united front led by the communists a better chance of winning a majority.

Under the understanding reached by the Left parties, Oli will be the Prime Minister once again if the “grand alliance” wins the elections, as most political observers predict. Prachanda will be recognised as the leader of the unified Left forces in Nepal. In the past couple of years, the CPN-UML has emerged as the most popular party in the country. Oli’s refusal to accede to the demands of the Indian government on the Madhesi issue has made him a hero of sorts among the majority of the populace. On the other hand, Prachanda’s popularity has perceptibly dipped. If he had continued his alliance with the Nepali Congress, his party would have been reduced to the status of a junior partner.

Alliance of non-Left parties

Five political non-Left parties have decided to form a “democratic alliance” to counter the “grand alliance”. It will be led by the Nepali Congress and includes the Rashtriya Janata Party (Nepal); the Federal Socialist Forum, Nepal; the pro-royalist Rashtriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal; and the Nepal Loktantrik Forum.

Other smaller parties such as the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party-Democratic are likely to join the anti-communist bloc. Smaller left-wing parties such as the Nepal Workers and Peasants Party are likely to join the communist-led front in the increasingly polarised environment that Nepal politics currently finds itself in.

It is good news from the progressive point of view that the fractious communist parties of Nepal have once again decided to join hands. The united Communist Party of Nepal, like the Nepali Congress, was only allowed to function legally after the introduction of multiparty democracy in Nepal in 1991. The CPN-UML was formed at that time merging the Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist).

The CPN (Maoist Centre) came to the limelight in 1996 when it launched a countrywide armed insurgency to establish a “people’s republic” in the country. The guerillas under the leadership of Prachanda were successful in gaining territory and holding their own against the country’s security forces. India played a key role in brokering peace talks and bringing an end to the Maoist insurgency in 2006.

Since then, the Maoists have been key players in Nepal’s electoral politics. In the 2008 elections to the Constituent Assembly, the Maoists emerged as the single largest party.

Initially, India viewed Prachanda and the Maoists with distrust. After becoming Prime Minister for the first time, Prachanda committed the “sin” of visiting Beijing before coming to New Delhi, breaking the long-standing protocol followed by all previous Prime Ministers. New Delhi played a role in pushing him out of office after he had spent just eight months as Prime Minister. In his second stint in office, he saw to it that New Delhi was the first port of call in his itinerary.

The India factor

To assuage New Delhi’s exaggerated fears and suspicions, the “grand alliance” has gone out of its way to include Baburam Bhattarai, who is known to be close to the Indian establishment, in its senior ranks. Although his splinter party did badly in the last municipal elections, he is expected to be given a senior post, either in the party or in the government, after the elections. All the political parties realise the importance of the India factor in the country’s politics and are awake to Indian sensitivities.

At the same time, they want Nepal to pursue an independent foreign policy. The Maoists, for instance, have been demanding the “scrapping” of the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship between India and Nepal. This issue has regularly featured in the manifestos of the Left parties in previous elections. There are also festering border disputes between the two countries that have the potential of becoming burning election issues.

China has been signalling in various ways that it considers Nepal to be in India’s sphere of influence. However, Nepal is an important cog in its ambitious One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. India has until now refused to be part of the OBOR project. Chinese President Xi Jinping had suggested that Nepal become the “economic bridge” between China and India so that the three countries could benefit. China is building huge rail and road projects that would connect it and Nepal.

For the first time, China and Nepal held joint military exercises in February this year. Before this, the Nepalese Army had only held exercises with the Indian and United States armies. Prachanda, during his last stint as Prime Minister, said that China was concerned about the U.S. using India to encircle China in the region. Nepal too, feels, that overdependence on India for most of its imports is not good for its national interests in the long run.

India’s propensity to impose blockades on landlocked Nepal has cost it a lot of goodwill among ordinary Nepalese. If the communist-led “grand alliance” wins in the coming elections, Nepal may be all set to chart a new and more assertive course in bilateral relations with India.

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