As expected, from the moment it became clear that he would have to resign as prime minster, K.P. Sharma Oli, the chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxists Leninists (UML), started demonising India, blaming its southern neighbour for his forced exit after only nine months. He had a point.
India had started searching for Oli’s alternative in Nepal when it felt that he was not serious about resolving outstanding issues in the Madhes, the low-lying plains bordering India, which is also home to more than half the national population. India was also increasingly uncomfortable with the growing bonhomie between Oli and China.
First, China. As I have written before, the Indian paranoia over what it sees as growing Chinese inroads into Nepal is misplaced and, ultimately, counterproductive. It is true that the Chinese have of late adopted a more interventionist approach in Nepal, the best example of which was its last-minute scramble to save Oli’s tottering coalition. Such overt Chinese intervention in Nepal, in clear departure from China’s traditionally hands-off approach, clearly spooked the Indians.
But the spectre of Nepal going into the ‘Chinese camp’ is greatly exaggerated. China, even in the best of circumstances, can never match the deep historical and people-to-people links that exist between Nepal and India. China understands this, which is why Beijing has been consistently telling Kathmandu to be on the best of terms with New Delhi.
All signs suggest that China doesn’t want to directly compete with India for influence in Nepal. It rather sees Nepal as a part of its larger South Asian strategy, which is to prevent the region from completely falling under the sway of the Americans. The US, as the new Nepali Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ has hinted, is trying to undercut Chinese influence in South Asia by using India as a proxy. But China also knows its limitations. Well aware of India’s centrality in Nepal, it has proposed to make Nepal an ‘economic bridge’ between India and China; it does not want to leave India out of any of its major agreements with Nepal.
New Delhi is not convinced. There would otherwise have been no need for the four-month-long border blockade (which, to be fair, also had internal causes) and no need for India to actively search for an alternative to Oli in Nepal. Such efforts are counterproductive as they play right into the hands of the India-baiting political line which the UML has always championed. This sense of victimhood will come handy for the party as it goes into the three sets of elections – local, provincial and federal – slated for the next 17 months, as provisioned in the new constitution.
Oli has been able to cultivate a sizeable following, especially in the hilly areas and in the major urban centres of Nepal, by portraying himself as a valiant David who, during the four months of the blockade, single-handedly fought the next-door Goliath in India. Many fence-sitters in Nepal turned into ardent Oli supporters, almost overnight, after his forced removal and the visible triumphalism in the mainstream Indian media at his downfall.
The UML believes that its political stock has never been higher. It is thus the only major political force that is serious about the upcoming three sets of elections. The other major political parties are looking to defer the elections on one pretext or the other.
Oli does not miss any opportunity to warn Nepalis of the grave consequences of the failure to hold timely elections. His government was toppled, he says, at India’s behest by the Nepali Congress and Prachanda’s Maoist party – the first and the third largest parties in Nepal respectively – in order to put off elections indefinitely and invite a prolonged state of anarchy.
But while Oli will now sell his victimhood at the hands of India – a foolproof electoral strategy in Nepal – Prachanda and his Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) will struggle to convince people about their decision to ditch Oli mid course. The Maoists seem to have calculated that since they would be competing with the UML for the same leftist vote bank, it was not in the party’s interest to be seen playing ‘second fiddle’ in government to its chief electoral rival. In their reckoning, the Maoists would have a better chance of electoral success if they can first revive the moribund party organisation by controlling government purses.
But this is a risky strategy. Prachanda’s party had joined the UML government based on a tacit understanding that the two parties would go into the three sets of elections with some kind of a loose electoral alliance. Their common electoral strategy would be to play up their anti-India nationalist credentials, post-blockade and try to portray Nepali Congress and the Madhes-based parties as divisive forces working in cahoots with New Delhi. It wasn’t meant to be.
This understanding started to fray when Oli, in breach of his gentleman’s agreement with Prachanda, refused to step down and make way for the Maoist chairman following the passage of the annual budget. The Nepali Congress espied an opportunity and dangled the bait of prime minister before Prachanda, who took it.
Oli and his UML party have since been rather successful in their attempt to portray Prachanda as a rank opportunist who was ready to compromise on national sovereignty to get to power. If this label sticks, Prachanda’s Maoist party could face an existential crisis in the next election, with most left-leaning voters likely to support UML – the party which ‘saved’ Nepal from New Delhi’s ‘designs’.
The Maoist party under Prachanda, on the other hand, is a shadow of the mother force that waged a decade-long armed struggle. When he first came above the ground in 2006, Prachanda had a demi-god like status. His Maoist outfit subsequently became the largest party after the 2008 Constituent Assembly elections. But when he became the prime minister, Prachanda failed to do much in the interest of the marginalised communities and for national development and had to resign after only nine months, partly under pressure from an India that was apprehensive about the integration of Maoist fighters with the Nepal army.
In time, the Maoist party also became so enmeshed in parliamentary politics that it came to be seen as no different to any other political party in Nepal and Prachanda’s stature as a crusading revolutionary plummeted.
Going into new elections, Prachanda will have no credible agenda with which to challenge the UML on the left. The Maoists will be further hamstrung as its chief ideologue, Baburam Bhattarai, will now be contesting elections from a rival party.
Prachanda’s party will struggle as it has no core base area, unlike the Nepali Congress and Madhesi parties which have sizeable constituencies down in the Madhes. The Nepali Congress is also competitive in many hill settlements. The UML, by and large, is a hill-based party, but with a strong party organisation in all 75 districts of Nepal, including in all 22 Madhesi districts. As a result of its robust organisation, the UML will always be a formidable electoral force.
Not so with Prachanda’s Maoists, with their rag-tag party organisation and a largely discredited leadership. The second Constituent Assembly election in 2013, which relegated the Maoists to a distant third from first position in 2008, was a reflection of Prachanda’s waning popularity.
The Naya Shakti (“New Force”) of Baburam Bhattarai is also struggling to position itself in the crowded political landscape of Nepal. It’s slogan of national sovereignty, economic prosperity and inclusion may have appeal but Bhattarai’s reputation as the architect of the Maoist war that led to 17,000 deaths also makes some suspect his new initiative. There are other leftist parties of various shades, but none of them is capable of mounting a credible electoral challenge.
Going into the three sets of elections, the UML seems the best placed among the communist forces in Nepal because it has a foolproof mantra of victimhood and in Oli, a rallying point for all nationalistic Nepalis brought together by recent Indian highhandedness. Paradoxically, by helping his downfall, India might have in the long run contributed to the UML party’s strengthening, in the process further fanning anti-India sentiments in Nepal.
Biswas Baral is a Kathmandu-based journalist who writes on Nepal’s foreign policy. He tweets at @biswasktm.