The Cheat Sheet

How a political crisis in Nepal impacts India

Poornima Joshi | Updated on January 06, 2021

The crisis triggered by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s decision to dissolve the Nepalese Parliament is a strong reminder for India to redefine its historic relationship tied in religion, culture and assimilation.

What’s special about Nepal and India?

Nepal is a unique country whose citizens can enrol into the Indian civil services as also the Army, which bestows an honorary General’s title to the Nepal Army Chief, a gesture that is reciprocated in equal terms.

But the ongoing political turmoil with overt Chinese intervention signifies the evolution of a democratic process in Nepal which had its genesis in the Indian freedom struggle but has now come into its own.

PM Oli’s cartographic expansion of Nepal’s territory last year with a new map that included disputed territory with India symbolises a tendency among Nepalese politicians to use anti-India rhetoric as also push their two powerful neighbours in covert manoeuvres for domestic political gains.

A clear instance of this trend is Oli’s conversion of a challenge to his leadership into a larger ploy involving India and China. Nepal’s internal political processes are, therefore, significant to India’s strategic interests.

How did China encroach on India’s historic advantages?

India’s entrenched interests in Nepal suffered a setback in 2015, when a blockade at the borders ensued following protests by Madhesis and some other ethnic groups against marginalisation of their interests in the newly-passed Nepalese Constitution.

The blockade, which Nepal accused India of facilitating, caused a humanitarian crisis in the landlocked country that was already reeling from the effects of a powerful earthquake that killed nearly 9,000 people.

Within a month of the lifting of the blockade, Oli visited Beijing and signed a transit agreement that included access to Chinese ports and construction of rail links between the two countries.

This signalled a scaling down of Nepal’s heavy dependence on India. In the subsequent election, China backed a merger of Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist with the CPN-Maoist Centre to form the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) which commanded a two-thirds majority in Parliament. The NCP promoted an anti-India world-view which, alternatively, translated into increased engagement with China not just through aid, infrastructural projects but also teaching Mandarin in Nepalese schools and joint military exercises with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Why did the Nepalese PM dissolve Parliament?

The power struggle between Oli and his co-chair in the ruling party, Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka “Prachanda”, escalated during the Covid-19 pandemic. Oli drummed up Nepalese nationalism on an anti-India plank to counter his opponents.

But the attacks were relentless, with Prachanda targeting him for isolating Nepal geopolitically on the one hand and opposing Oli’s approval of a $500-million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) initiative, on the other. The political crisis led Oli to dissolve Parliament, a decision that is being challenged in the Supreme Court of Nepal.

How has the situation evolved since the dissolution?

Since the dissolution, India has subtly contrasted its ostensibly hands-off approach, much appreciated in Nepal, to the rather proactive engagement of the Chinese envoy Hou Yanqi.

The Chinese have since abandoned Oli in their effort to save the ruling party from an inevitable split. India, while ostensibly keeping distance, has cultivated Oli against Prachanda’s attempts to form an alternative coalition.

While protests have continued in the streets against Oli’s dissolution of Parliament, he is now believed to be contemplating an alliance with the more India-friendly Nepali Congress because a new government can still be formed by the majority of a single party or through a new coalition.

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Published on January 06, 2021

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