Kathmandu: As Nepal votes today in the key national and provincial elections, India is carefully watching whether the outgoing ruling alliance led by Nepali Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba is going to pull through or whether the Communist party leader and former Prime minister KP Sharma Oli and his alliance will upset the apple-cart.
At least three countries — India, China and the United States — are closely monitoring this electoral franchise.
Out of a total of 275 members of the Parliament, 165 will be elected through direct voting, while the remaining 110 will be elected through a proportional electoral system. Similarly, out of a total of 550 members of the Provincial Assembly, 330 will be elected directly and 220 will be elected through the proportional method.
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Bittersweet bilateral ties and India’s ‘interests’ in Nepal
India’s interest in Nepal is defined by age-old cultural and religious ties, including blood links between the former royals of both nations; a more than 2000 km-long open border adjoining Sikkim and West Bengal in the east to Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, in the west. Also, Nepal’s citizens are free to work, travel and own property in India, and conservative estimates are that at least 1 to 3 million Nepali citizens earn a living across the country. Nepal’s democratic aspirations have always been supported by Indian political parties.
From the time that India and Nepal signed the five-point Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1950 to brokering the 12-point agreement in 2006 with Maoist rebels that underscored the latter’s decision to lay down arms, end their decade-old violent insurgency and join the political mainstream, India has remained a close partner.
But the intimacy turned to serious bitterness twice in the last 33 years —in 1989 and 2015 — under the Rajiv Gandhi and Narendra Modi governments, during the two economic blockades.
The 2015 blockade was ostensibly carried out by the Madhesis, who comprise one-third of Nepal’s population and largely live in the Terai, adjacent to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. In Nepal, the blockade was largely believed to have India’s backing, however, officially, the Indian government denied any role in the strike.
Oli travelled to Beijing to seek economic help. As India watched with growing concern and irritation, Beijing’s Communist Party officials made a beeline for Nepal. President Xi Jinping arrived in 2019, elevated the relationship to a “strategic partnership,” both countries signed 23 agreements and Xi pledged $ 496 in economic assistance. China’s then ambassador to Nepal, Hou Yanqi, became the country’s most high-profile diplomat, far more influential than the Indian ambassador, normally considered to be the most powerful foreigner in the Himalayan nation.
So as Nepal votes today, the question uppermost in New Delhi and Beijing’s elite circles is whether one of the two pre-poll alliances — led by Nepali Congress Sher Bahadur Deuba and United Marxist-Leninist leader K P Sharma Oli, respectively— will win an outright majority; or if the race is tight and the outcome uncertain, will political parties break their alliances and jump ship just to stay in power?
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The Prachanda factor and new entrants
Prachanda, the charismatic former PM and former Maoist rebel, has joined Deuba’s alliance, but he is being acknowledged as “kingmaker”. What this means is that if Oli is ahead in the results, the chances of Prachanda abandoning Deuba and going back to Oli is more than possible.
Strategic analyst, former diplomat, chairperson of the Kathmandu-based think-tank, Centre for Social Inclusion and Federalism, Vijay Kanta Karna told ThePrint, “Prachanda and Oli fought the last elections in 2017 together. Six months after the polls, their two parties merged and the unified Nepal Communist Party was formed. It is believed that the Chinese helped persuade both Communist parties to come together. It is possible that the Chinese may apply their powers of persuasion again, in this election, if Oli needs help.”
Back in 2021, Prachanda kept waiting for Oli to demit office and let him become PM — according to the alleged power-sharing agreement between the two Communist leaders — but Oli refused to play ball. He was the PM and showed no signs of leaving Baluwatar, the Nepal PM’s official residence. Oli preferred to dissolve the House, paving the way for Prachanda to join Deuba’s side.
This time around, highly placed sources in the Deuba-Prachanda alliance told ThePrint that if the alliance wins, they could share the post of PM over the next five years — that is, two and a half years each.
But if Deuba fares badly — because of party faction-fighting, bad ticket distribution and party cadre discomfort with allying with rebels — then Prachanda may, indeed, be tempted to return to Oli. Especially if Oli offers Prachanda the same terms as Deuba, that is the chance to become PM for a couple of years at least.
Enter Rabi Lamicchane. The former Nepali journalist is the talk of town — indeed, the talk of all Nepal — as disillusioned Nepali voters flock to his recently registered Rashtriya Swatantra Party (RPP). Taxi-drivers, favourite pollsters of parachuting foreign journalists, as well as shop-keepers, doctors, bankers and entrepreneurs in the big cities of Kathmandu, Pokhara and Chitwan have begun to swear by Lamichhane and young professional Nepalis fighting the elections, including as independents — Toshima Karki, general surgeon; Sumana Shreshtha, management consultant; Harka Sampang, mayor of Dharan; the Oxford-educated mechanical engineer Sagar Dhakal (fighting Deuba in his Dadeldhura constituency).
Sumana Shreshtha of RSP, on a proportional representation (PR) ticket — in which candidates will be elected depending on the proportion of seats won by political parties — told ThePrint that “the parliamentarians who have been elected so far have not been accountable to the people. There is no discussion about Bills that are presented. Dialogue needs to change. The relationship between MP and voter needs to change. There is no delivery. Even today, 60 per cent of the people rely on friends and family to get their work done.”
But these new-age politicians admit that it will be tough to create a significant ripple in Nepal’s mainstream. In this election, they are looking to get a toehold into full-fledged politics — if they win a significant number of seats, they could become a potential ginger group — the Aam Aadmi Party version of Nepali politics. They believe that the next five years will be fertile ground to learn the art of politics as well as compromise.
One thing is certain. Whether or not Nepal’s younger politicians are able to push their older fellow citizens out of power — they have surely begun a movement to force the pace of change.
(Edited by Anumeha)
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