Earlier this month, in a veiled reference to India, five former prime ministers of Nepal cautioned against alleged external influence in internal matters of Nepal.
This was probably the first time in recent political history that five former prime ministers from different parties spoke in unison regarding alleged foreign interference through a joint press statement, stating that Nepalese themselves should take their decision.
However, they have not provided any evidence on how foreign forces are interfering in their internal political affairs. It is common for Nepal’s political leaders, especially communist leaders, to resort to an anti-Indian rhetoric to bolster their domestic position because nationalism is a saleable political card in Nepal. But, the collective statement from former prime ministers, including Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba, cannot be taken lightly.
A foreign policy blunder
After K.P. Sharma Oli dissolved the House of Representatives on December 20 last year, opposition parties have been consistently saying that India is backing him. Many political experts in Kathmandu believe that the thaw in the relation between Oli and New Delhi began mainly after Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) chief Samant Kumar Goel held an opaque meeting with the prime minister in Nepal.
In October 2020, Goel visited Nepal as a special envoy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. According to media reports, in the one-on-one meeting, which lasted for two hours, a broad understanding was reached and Oli committed not to hinder genuine Indian interest in Nepal. India reportedly said it would not create any trouble for him.
Ahead of Goel’s visit, Oli had publicly said that meetings were being organised in India to topple his government.
Following the bilateral meeting with the RAW chief, Oli’s restrained remarks on India fuelled speculation that the conflict had been resolved. Earlier this month, the Nepali prime minister stated that “misunderstanding with New Delhi has been resolved”. Nepali opposition parties and analysts are convinced that despite a bitter relationship between Oli and New Delhi for some periods, the two sides have reached a level of comfort.
Nepal political turmoil
A large chunk of opposition leaders believe that without strong support from India, Oli alone would not have taken such significant political steps, and India is preventing the formation of an alternative government to replace Oli.
This popular hypothesis in Nepal is also fuelled by Oli’s changing stance on key political issues. Oli, who emerged as an influential political leader after he was elected as CPN-UML chair in 2014, was not attentive to the demands of Madhesis, Janajatis and other marginalised communities. He usually turned down the demands of Madhes-based parties and projected himself as a conservative leader.
However, Oli, who has been the country’s prime minister since February 2018, has now changed tack. He has welcomed a faction of the Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP) led by Mahanta Thakur and Rajendra Mahato in government, pledging to address their demands, including an amendment to the constitution. Some of their demands have already been addressed.
In the last six years since promulgating the constitution, Oli had outrightly rejected the constitutional amendment as demanded by Madhes-based parties. However, other parties, mainly Nepali Congress, were favourable to their demands.
On May 23, Oli issued an ordinance on citizenship that partially fulfils the demands of Madhes-based parties. Similarly, dozens of criminal charges against Madhesi leaders and cadres for their involvement during the Madhes movement have also been withdrawn. Oli and this faction of the JSP have also formed a task force to prepare a document on how to amend the constitution.
Another faction of the JSP led by Baburam Bhattarai and Upendra Yadav are opposed to joining the Oli government. Instead, they have joined with opposition leaders protesting Oli’s dissolution of the House and have knocked on the door of the Supreme Court expecting a revival of parliament which has been dissolved two times in six months.
What led Oli and Madhes-based parties to come together?
Oli’s desire to stick to power till the next general election has driven him to compromise on the demands of Madhes, it is felt. On the other hand, Madhesi leaders may have calculated that if Oli, who had previously rejected their demands, agrees to fulfil them, it would be their victory because other parties such as Nepali Congress and the CPN-Maoist Centre cannot politically oppose such an agreement.
If Oli is positive about their demands, they could easily garner the support of two-thirds of lawmakers to amend the constitution, and cement their agreement with the prime minister. It seems that Oli’s desire to remain in power and the Madhes-based parties’ desire to clock some achievement has brought the two sides together. But there is a perception in Kathmandu that India has played a role in getting them on the same side. It is believed that New Delhi encouraged Mahanta Thakur and Rajendra Mahato to support Oli.
When Oli came to power in 2018, the relationship between Oli and India did not augur well. In the initial months, issues such as the Nepal-India Eminent Persons Group (EPG) report and Nepal’s participation in BIMSTEC military drills contributed to the souring relationship between the two countries.
And many foreign policy observers, politicians and media in New Delhi perceived that Oli tilted to China, attributing different issues such as the Transit and Transport Agreement, establishing fraternal relations between the then CPN-UML and Communist Party of China and pushing the connectivity projects. Many observers say that as rapprochement with India is going on full swing, Oli has distanced himself from China.
The prime minister stoked controversy with his public statements such as that the ‘Indian virus’ was more lethal than the ‘Chinese virus’, Lord Rama’s birthplace was in Nepal and not in India’s Ayodhya and that New Delhi was trying to dismantle his government. The relation between Oli and New Delhi reached its nadir when India issued its new political map and Nepal responded by incorporating Kalapani and Lipulekh.
In Kathmandu, the general view is that India wants the Oli government to be at the helm till the next elections, based on four major ‘reasons’.
First, Nepal Communist Party, which was tilted to China, is split under the leadership of Oli, and this is perceived as a favourable development for India.
Second, the issue of map, EPG and other contentious issues between two countries are now sidelined. Third, if Oli is kept out of power, he is again likely to use the nationalism card. In fact, ‘Hinduism’ is another factor that is linked to the argument that India is supporting Oli.
Oli, of late, has emerged as a leader who is taking steps to please the Hindu constituency and there is a strong notion here that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in India wants to see Nepal as a Hindu state.
India may or may not have backed Oli. However, both Oli and opposition leaders are repeating past mistakes, seeking indirect support of India either to remain in power or form the government.
After the promulgation of the constitution in 2015, India’s influence in the internal affairs of Nepal had reduced. But, with Prime Minister Oli and opposition parties lobbying for backing from New Delhi with their not-so-subtle remarks and steps, they have nobody to blame if foreign powers meddle in Nepal affairs.
Nepal’s political course after the 2015 constitution is a political party-driven process, but acts, speeches, and statements by government and opposition parties risk the creation of a narrative that India is still dictating internal matters of Nepal.
Kamal Dev Bhattarai is a Kathmandu-based political analyst.