While Nepal has assured Prime Minister Narendra Modi that its soil will not be used in any manner to challenge New Delhi, losing control over Nepal’s economic reconstruction would be a strategic setback for India.
If there is one country that should be hauled over the coals for wasting precious years, it is Nepal. Endowed with rich flora and fauna, umpteen rivers with a natural fall into gorges, and valleys that are ideal for tapping hydel power, the Himalayan nation is probably one of the few countries that has never been under foreign rule.
From the time Prithvi Narayan Shah unified the country and made Kathmandu its capital, Nepal has had everything going in its favour, almost everything. Truly “God’s own country”, Nepal was destined to be the Switzerland of the east, but ended up in heaps of garbage on the streets. Yes. The garbage disposal contract was reportedly outsourced to a foreign company that left Kathmandu long ago as it was not paid its dues for years.
Political instability has persisted in Nepal since the days of the first democracy movement in the early 1950s, when the infamous Rana regime was ousted and, ironically, monarchy was restored as a mark of democratic victory. The clock turned a full circle when, after almost 60 years, another democracy movement ousted the monarchy and brought a gun-wielding self-proclaimed Maoist at the head of the government.
A multi-party democracy without a ceremonial monarch grappled with the task of producing a constitution acceptable to everyone. After squabbling, allegations and counter-allegations for 10 long years, Nepal finally produced a constitution and held its first general election, only to elect a Left party to form the government.
The first Communist prime minister of Nepal was Dr Manmohan Adhikari, who assumed the reins under the monarchy and religiously observed ‘dasain’, the Nepali version of Dussehra and Deepawali (I had the honour of attending Deepawali puja at his house). With the advent of violent Maoists in the late nineties, the socio-political situation went awry, pulling the country into a morass of economic doom and political instability. The right-of-centre democratic parties collapsed under the weight of their own contradictions and further damaged the chances of economic and political revival.
Bereft of an alternative developmental agenda and short of charismatic leadership, very much like its namesake party in India, the Nepalese Congress crumbled like a cookie, giving way to a coalition of Left and radical Maoists. The two parties, The United Marxist Leninist (UML), the mainstream Communist party, itself a coalition of some seven-odd parties, and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), whatever it means, were expected to merge and give a stable government in Kathmandu.
Far from it, the Maoists now want to call the shots and, given half a chance, would pull the rug from under the feet of Prime Minister K.P. Oli Sharma.
It was under these trying circumstances that Prime Minister Oli came to a fretting and fuming New Delhi. While New Delhi has every reason to be wary of the Left-run government, the blokes in South Block should know that Communism in Nepal is of a home-grown variety, which can never insulate itself from the cultural moorings and religious ethos of this former ‘Hindu Adhiraajya’, euphemistically (and wrongly?) called ‘Hindu Rashtra’. Traditions and Hinduism are so strong a template of Nepali society that no amount of Marxist propaganda can wean it away from its moorings. But it would be wrong to misjudge the aspirational youth of Nepal, the hardworking womenfolk, and the peace-loving rural population.
An outdated utopian ideology like Communism cannot do justice to the jobless millions and the youthful demography of Nepal, who are raring to scale the Himalayas. Nepal’s economy has the potential to perform a remarkable turnaround by tapping into just 10 per cent of its 64,000-MW hydel potential. Nepal’s neighbour Bhutan has fruitfully collaborated with India and today proudly owns more than five state-of-the-art hydro power plants financed and built with New Delhi’s aid over the years.
Oli shared his vision of a resurgent Nepal with Prime Minister Modi during his recent visit to India, his first after taking over as PM for the second time. India has assured him of all possible support to achieve his dream of inland waterways, and a cross-border railway network through the mountains and the plains of Tarai, two politically vibrant zones that can plunge the country back into chaos if not handled cautiously.
Politics in Nepal has always meant playing the China card against India and vice-versa. Both India and China are aware of this. While Nepal has assured India that its soil will not be used in any manner that could pose a security challenge to New Delhi, losing control over Nepal’s economic reconstruction would be a strategic setback for India.
New Delhi should use all the arrows in its soft-power quiver to hit the re-set button to win Nepal back, or at least warn it of the consequences of Beijing’s “debt-trap” hug. Prime Minister ‘comrade’ Oli is one of the few surviving leaders of the country with an India connection. It is time for the Modi government to invest in the future leadership of Nepal, which will determine the success of this administration’s neighbourhood policy.
The author is a security and strategic affairs commentator and former editor of ‘Organiser’.