China Steals a March on India as Left Govt Comes to Power in Nepal
When I asked a senior diplomat in Kathmandu how India was going to cope with the mother of all surprises, the China-backed formation of a Left alliance comprising two key Left parties – Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) and the Maoist Centre – he simply replied: ‘we will form a democratic alliance…let’s see’. This, after the different constituents of the democratic parties in Nepal are fractured and woefully wanting in terms of leadership.
Left Government in Nepal is Good News for China
Getting a foothold in the Indian bastion of Nepal in the Himalayas is a feat for China, who were working at it for at least the last two years following the breakdown of the UML-NC coalition government. The coalition collapsed following the Nepali Congress’ (and India’s) efforts to lure (despite Chinese resistance) highly flexible Maoist supremo Prachanda by not only offering him premiership of the government but also reassuring that India might favour the Maoists in overtaking the UML.
But while this unnatural Right-Left coalition was in power, Prachanda decided to walk out, the Left Alliance being formally announced in Kathmandu. That left the Nepali Congress and India high and dry much to the delight of Beijing.
These are the same Chinese, who during the reign of King Gyanendra used to ridicule the Maoists regularly, calling them miscreants, anti-state rebels and hijackers of Mao’s fair name. China had also tried to bring monarchy and the political parties together to collectively fight to defeat the bad Maoists. But once the Maoists came to power after winning an election, Beijing was forced to celebrate the event as it announced that “we have rediscovered the ideological similarities with the Maoists.’’
Two years ago, the Chinese ambassador in Kathmandu was sacked because he failed to predict the demise of monarchy through the 19 days of peaceful protests in Kathmandu. The Chinese Ambassador in Kathmandu Madame Yu Hong reportedly told a friendly ambassador after the Left alliance victory:
Perhaps that is still a bridge too far.
Nepal’s Balancing Act
The political conquest in the triple elections of 2017 by the Left Alliance is a landmark event bolstered by China’s deep pockets which has earned it goodwill and influence. The media does not ever criticise the Chinese like they’re damning India all the time. On the other hand, China is praised.
The Left Alliance have won local, federal and provincial elections by huge margins despite the mixed First Past the Post and Proportional Representation system which is quite complicated. And that is why there is no government 40 days after the results of the elections.
There was a time when the Chinese were mainly worried about anti-China activities of 30,000 Tibetans in Nepal and thus the Tibet office in Kathmandu closed down. Now China looks beyond Tibet. The truth is Nepal fears China more than it fears India, especially after the Chinese unilaterally acted to destroy the anti-China Khampa rebel movement in the late 1970s in northern Nepal.
King Prithvinarayan Shah, the founder of modern Nepal had warned its rulers to keep India and China equidistant. But Nepal has always tilted towards the stronger power, strength being measured by their ability to influence political events. In this context, India has been miles ahead of China. All major political transformation witnessed by Nepal, from restoration of monarchy, introduction of democracy, dismantling monarchy and mainstreaming Maoist to democratising Nepal, India has played a key role.
No wonder the Indian ambassador was called the ‘Laat Saab’. Further, Nepal knew its red lines when it came to India’s security concerns. Ambassadors of all western countries would famously say: “we will follow what New Delhi does in Kathmandu.” India’s stellar stake in Nepal was formally recognised and acknowledged. For India, Nepal remains geostrategically the most important country which is literally the ‘’head’’ of Bharat Mata – the Indian subcontinent.
Political Disadvantage for Marginalised Communities
Alas, India lost the game to China as it was left out by the Nepali political class even as the new Constitution was being written and provincial boundaries of new Nepal were being demarcated.
It is not only the Madhesis but other marginalised communities which are at a political disadvantage in the new Constitution when it comes to the provisions related to citizenship, proportional representation in state entities and demarcation of Madhesi provincial boundaries.
Like in 2008, when they refused to participate in the first Constituent Assembly elections till its political demands were met, so also in 2017, they were counselled by India to participate in the elections and they did. Younger firebrand Madhesi leaders are whispering about a Kashmir type movement. Before the Maoist took up arms, people would talk of an LTTE-like revolt.
Backing the Madhesis Backfired for India
Three days before the new Constitution was to be promulgated in 2015, India sent the prime minister’s special envoy, Foreign Secretary Jaishankar who publicly demanded a delay in the promulgation of the Constitution till the demands of the Madhesis were addressed just so that the Constitution was truly an inclusive one. This sparked a furore and the rest is history.
India’s publicly bad behavior in backing the Madhesi blockade created a groundswell of anti-India sentiment on an unprecedented scale, leading to ultra-nationalism. India’s uncivil behaviour boosted the image of former Prime Minister and UML leader KP Oli who was hailed as a hero for defying India and leaning towards China in order to give a befitting reply for the blockade.
It is clearly a failure of India’s coercive diplomacy, its first public defeat in Nepal where India is accused of micromanagement. This is generally the fate of most big countries faced with smaller neighbours. Nepali Congress’ constitutional expert Daman Dhungana used to say, “whatever India does or doesn’t, it will be blamed.” That’s the unpleasant situation staring at India. It is time when India’s engagement with Nepal should be elevated to the political level and fresh action is undertaken to regain the lost ground.
Era of ‘Roti-Beti-Khoon’ Relationship is Over
Meanwhile Ambassador Yu will pop the champagne later next month when the Left Alliance will take to rule for the next five years, all of Nepal except Number 2 Province that was won by an alliance of Madhesis – Rashtriya Janta Party and the Federal Socialist Forum.
This 21st century battle was fought not just in Kathmandu but all over Nepal resulting in the defeat of the India-supported Democratic Alliance. But Oli and Prachanda know that the distance between Kathmandu and New Delhi is just 700 miles, while Beijing is 4000 miles away. Also there is nothing in common between Nepal and China than anger against India. And all wounds clumsily self-inflicted.
The era of roti-beti-khoon relations between India and Nepal is all but over. The meeting last week between Chief Minister of UP Yogi Adityanath and King Gyanendra has considerable political potential. For China, Nepal is no longer part of the ‘String of Pearls’, but now its the crown jewel in South Asia.
(Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta is a founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, the forerunner of the current Integrated Defence Staff. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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