Will India Still Engage With Nepali PM Post-Supreme Court Verdict?

Despite India-Nepal ties being tumultuous under Oli, some in India see him as useful in guarding India’s interests.

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Opinion
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After dealing a severe blow to Nepali Prime Minister KP Oli’s move to dissolve the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court (SC) of Nepal has made another landmark judgment that has suddenly brought Mr Oli back to the centrestage of Nepali politics.

The ruling has also brought with it deep tensions and confusion for the Communists and Maoists who came together to secure a majority in the last elections. The SC, on 7 March 2021, scrapped the very existence of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP), in its entirety. Instead, it ruled in favour of the Rishiram Kattel-led NCP that was registered in the Election Commission (EC) of Nepal in 2013.

The Court verdict implies that the former CPN-UML and Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), which together formed the NCP later, would now return to their pre-merger stage.

The Court ordered that the two entities must seek the EC’s approval as per the Political Parties Act, in case they want to opt for a fresh merger. The verdict has also brought to a closure the tussle and claims over NCP made by PM Oli and the Prachanda-Madhav Kumar Nepal factions.

What India & China Want for Nepali Politics

The UML and Maoists had earlier come together as the latter failed to secure a poll alliance with the Nepali Congress (NC). Fearing a debacle due to loss of support of the minority groups at the time of framing the Constitution, Prachanda opted for the pre-poll alliance. For Oli, preventing an alliance between the Congress and the Maoists was a tactical move, as UML alone could not secure a majority.

But the role of external forces was equally crucial. In the post-election period, India wanted a coalition government led by the NC with the support of the Maoists and Madhesh-based parties. New Delhi was divided on this.

While one group was pushing for a NC-led coalition government, another group had argued that the public mandate should be respected and the largest party in the parliament (the then CPN-UML) should form the government.

Perhaps the latter prevailed, and a Left coalition government led by Oli took over the reins in March 2018.

On the other hand, in the post-monarchy period, China wanted a Left party government in Kathmandu. It took advantage of the new Left alliance.

Other than promising full financial and technical support to Nepal, China pushed for the merger of both parties. The merger was finalised in May 2018 under Chinese guidance, and the NCP was formed. A year after the merger, the Communist Party of China (CPC) had a party-to-party MoU with the NCP, with the vision of establishing a single party Communist regime in Nepal under the guidance of the CPC.

As per sources, China is proactively pressing for the two factions to stick together even now.

Supreme Court of Nepal’s New Verdict: Key Political Implications

There are significant political implications of the verdict as it comes on the heels of the SC verdict of 23 February that directed the government to restore the dissolved House of Representatives. PM Oli had recommended the dissolution on 20 December 2020. The leaders and cadres of the two factions are now in an awkward situation as they are struggling to reconcile with the verdict.

The confusion is due to the presence of a large number of former Maoists and UML members in both the factions.

There is the fear of non-acceptability and loosing seniority in the parent party due to discontentment in both the factions over the last one year.

Most importantly, the Oli-led government has been reduced to a minority in the House since his position has now become that of a CPN-UML leader.

Since the CPN-UML has 120 seats in the 275-member House, it is now short of 18 seats to get a simple majority — that is 138. Intense negotiations were seen among all major players, which include the NC and Janata Samajwadi Party (JSP), besides the CPN-UML and the Maoists, for government formation (at the time of writing this article). Also, strong voices are emerging from both factions to save the Left unity.

Timing of Peace Talks: Implications

In another significant development in Nepal, the government and the banned Netra Bikram Chand-led Communist Party of Nepal (CPN), a Left wing extremist (LWE) outfit, signed a three-point peace agreement on 4 March 2021. The agreement addressed two major demands of the hitherto underground CPN faction — freeing CPN cadres from jail and withdrawing court cases against them, and lifting of the government ban imposed on the party.

In return, the CPN has agreed to extend all possible cooperation to address its demands through dialogue and to carry out all its political activities in a peaceful manner.

The timing of the peace talks with the rebel group, which was banned by the same government on 12 March 2019, for indulging in subversive activities, and arresting many of its cadres since then, hold relevance here.

The initiative has more political connotations rather than just being a genuine attempt at resolving the conflict.

How KP Oli Can ‘Weaken’ His Rivals

The announcement from the government’s side came while the House of Representatives was reinstated by the SC. Anticipating demands from the dissenting party leaders of the NCP and opposition parties to prove their majority in the House and seeking his resignation, the PM took a slew of political measures to weaken the rival faction.

Using the Maoists against the ex-Maoists (targeting Prachanda) was one. At this juncture, PM Oli needs the support of Chand and other LWE groups, who command strong presence in rural areas among the indigenous people.

Moreover, since these LWE factions are critical of Prachanda due to their ideological and tactical differences, an alliance with these groups would help Oli to counter his rival faction not only politically, but also by using terror tactics during the upcoming parliamentary elections, as the then UCPN-Maoist, headed by Prachanda, did during 2008 elections. It must be noted that there is no mention of de-radicalisation programme for the CPN cadres, surrendering of arms and ammunitions, and institutional mechanism to monitoring implementation of the peace agreement.

Why New Delhi Should Continue Engaging With Kathmandu

From the CPN point of view, this was a golden opportunity to join mainstream politics, while the outfit has been struggling to boost the people’s war to a higher level due to depleting cadres, leaders, weapons, funds, and public support.

Government sources claim that more than 2098 cadres of the CPN were arrested immediately after the imposition of the ban. Before this, only 190 cadres were arrested. Similarly, around 352 cadres have either deserted the party or surrendered before the local police.

Thus, all is not lost for the Oli government.

In the current scenario, Raisina Hill could continue its policy of engaging with Baluwatar due to a number of reasons. From India’s point of view, despite anti-India rhetoric, Oli was useful in three issues.
  • First, India needed to urgently work closely with Kathmandu before the Chinese could send its COVID vaccine to Nepal. This was reciprocated immediately by the Oli government when Nepal’s Foreign Minister Pradip Gyawali visited New Delhi in January 2021.
  • Second, India was concerned about party-to-party MoU between the NCP and the CPC, which has a vision of establishing a single party Communist rule in Nepal. India finds that assertion unfavourable for budding democracy in Nepal. India would prefer a pro-India faction in the NCP to rule in Kathmandu. Since PM Oli has been holding two positions — that of parliamentary party leader and party chairman — and also because of his strong grip over the party, engaging with Oli could be best bet for India. Oli in fact had snubbed the Chinese ambassador by suggesting that China should not interfere in the internal matters of the NCP when the former tried to save a split in the party.
  • Third, India could have felt that bilateral relationship should not be affected due to border disputes, and an active engagement with Oli might minimise the damage. Earlier, Oli had sent a message to New Delhi that the new political map was issued under pressure from pro-Chinese factions in the NCP led by Bamdev Gautam.

After the scrapping of the NCP, no party will secure a majority in the parliament. Since, the Oli-led UML is the largest party in parliament, it might claim government formation. In this regard, Oli might approach the Madhesi leaders first. The Madhesi leaders are fully aware that only Oli can address their demands – like releasing activist Resham Chaudhary, and those who have been behind bars on various charges, among others, including key amendments in the Constitution.

Road Ahead for India-Nepal Ties

From the Madhesi side, this could be the minimum negotiation point to extend support to the CPN-UML. India is seen to encourage this formation. This will benefit India in two ways:

  • First, the largest and most organised party of Nepal will be sympathetic to India.
  • Second, India’s border region will be peaceful in the presence of Madhesis in the government.

However, given the ideological differences between these political parties, an early breakthrough on government formation appears challenging.

Pro-Chinese groups have already been reactivated for the unity of the NCP, and the CPN (Maoist Centre) has not withdrawn its support from the Oli government yet. In this scenario, Raisina Hill could continue its policy of engaging with Baluwatar (the Nepali Prime Minister’s official residence) although it is seen as pressing for realignment of democratic forces in Nepal, that include the NC, Madhesis and Maoists. But despite some deterioration in friendly relations with India during the Oli regime, a faction in India see him as useful in protecting India’s core interests in Nepal.

(Shah is a Nepali journalist and researcher based in Delhi. Nayak is a researcher at MP-IDSA, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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