Roti-belt appeal is fine, what of China factor?
Ashok K Mehta
The last two weeks, I was fortunate to be in Nepal – Kathmandu, Pokhara and the villages around Pokhara – during the counting of local body elections held after 20 years and the process of transfer of power in Kathmandu. By any standards, both were relatively peaceful and glitch-free, bar the Bharatpur mayoral seat being contested by Prime Minister Prachanda’s daughter, Renu Dahal, whose re-poll has been stayed by the court. The first phase of 283 out of 744 local bodies was held, in which the UML was the leader with 124 wins followed by Nepali Congress and the Maoists with 104 and 46 successes. Local elections have elicited phenomenal excitement and inter and intra-party zeal, which included a large participation of Indian Army Gorkha ex-servicemen, traditionally Nepali Congress’s well-wishers who earlier considered politics immoral.
The next phase of elections, postponed to June 28, will be held in the remaining 41 districts of Provinces 1, 2, 5 and 7. The newly formed Rashtriya Janata Party Nepal (RJPN), a Madhesi party which has dropped ‘Madhes’ from its party acronym, has decided to boycott elections unless the constitutional amendments addressing its residual demands – population-based constituencies, citizenship, boundary demarcation and inclusion – are passed, though a two-thirds majority required for it is at present unobtainable. A gentleman’s agreement with the RJPN on the lines of one previous with Madhesis in 2008, in which India played a stellar role, may encourage them to fight the elections. Once again, New Delhi has urged the RJPN to participate in the elections.
Two years earlier, India’s intervention, virtually demanding constitutional amendments for the Madhesis, and Nepal’s refusal to oblige, led to the five-month long blockade which severely damaged bilateral relations. Then a peeved India merely noted the promulgation of the Constitution. This time around, after the local elections Prime Minister Modi spoke to Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda, congratulating him. New Delhi would like to see a Nepali Congress-Maoist alliance continue in Kathmandu. This is more important to it at this point than pushing the political aspirations of the Madhesis. The threat is the China-backed UML which is trying to wean the Maoists away from the alliance.
The transfer of power is working out smoothly. Prachanda has been a wise Prime Minister and a gentleman. He must be commended for leading a stable and productive 10-month long Government during which he ended load-shedding in Kathmandu, held local body polls, placed the economy on a 7.5 per cent growth trajectory and even signed the framework agreement on One Belt One Road (OBOR), signalling to New Delhi and his India-baiters like UML supremo KP Oli that he is his own man. Prachanda has awarded hydro projects like the 1,200 MW Budigandaki to China, messaging that he is no less a nationalist than Oli and his ilk. Sher Bahadur Deuba’s turn to be Prime Minister, came yesterday, a record fourth time as part of the power-sharing agreement. He must junk the jinx of failing to hold elections in 2002 and 2005, the pretext used by King Gyanendra to dismiss him twice as Prime Minister. In the next 10 months, he has to conduct three elections – Phase II of local bodies, provincial and federal.
Amongst the current crop of leaders, KP Oli continues to shine as someone who did not surrender to India – although however imperfectly he did India’s bidding on addressing Madhesi grievances in the Constitution before being invited to New Delhi. His stature and reputation of a nationalist has endeared him to the youth and the media. For the present, it is advantage Oli and his party for their organisational cohesion, a united leadership and mass appeal. But all this could change if the Nepali Congress, Maoists and Madhesis play their cards properly. This will not be easy, as China, which once said it does not interfere in the internal affairs of any country, is reportedly aping India in micro-managing Nepal.
The general impression that sells and prevails locally is that while everything done by China is kosher, India’s labour is suspect. Beijing’s footprint is rapidly enlarging. It is being said no one can stop China’s penetration of Nepal politically and economically – bar people to people – except Nepal itself. Take the OBOR enterprise. At a recent foreign policy seminar at Kathmandu, 80 per cent speakers praised China, especially on OBOR. Through extended connectivity, it envisions diversification of Nepal’s trade and transit. Numerous scholarships and 15 programmes on OBOR have been launched and 10 connected China-funded think-tanks are coming up. The media is sold on China. After the first ever joint military exercise between the two Armies which was largely restricted to within barracks, the Chinese are extending their influence outside Kathmandu, to Pokhara and Surkhet. Even the tourist hub in Kathmandu is being called Thamel, with Chinese characteristics. But all said, the discerning Nepali says that China cannot pose a serious challenge to India’s historical primacy due to so much of sameness and proximity. The Chinese quest to reach the strategic Indo-Gangetic plains through Nepal via connectivity and trade is more of a challenge than opportunity for India.
India’s new Ambassador in Nepal, Manjeev Puri, stands out as he is only the second turbaned Sikh to be sent as the First Indian. After the damage done to India-Nepal relations due to New Delhi’s alleged retail politics in 2015, Puri’s low-key style is a breath of fresh air. His advantage: He arrived two months ago carrying no baggage, wanting to learn from scratch and urging his interlocutors to forget the past and invest in the future, focussed on development and prosperity. Managers of conflict resolution call such an approach as transforming the narrative – telling a good story. In one brief ‘mann ki baat’ in Kathmandu in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi unprecedently captured the hearts and minds of all Nepalis. One year later, he threw it all away by India being seen implicated in the Madhesi-led blockade.
Many of our leaders in India have not fathomed the extent of change in Nepal. Do not judge Nepal by the solitary baggage conveyor belt at Tribhuvan International Airport, but ask why all flights to India are subjected to a ladder-point security re-check. Many balls are in the air. In the tourist town of Pokhara, the greeting today is Jai Nepal.
In his Kantipur interview on the eve of transfer of power, Prachanda commented on the longevity of the current alliance, “I cannot say how long we can go together with the Nepali Congress.” For New Delhi, Prachanda remains the king-maker who can rock the boat.
(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and strategic affairs expert)