C3S Paper No. 0109/2016
Courtesy: DNA India
There is rich irony in a Hindutva party’s government in New Delhi propping up a Maoist as Nepal’s prime minister to check Communist China. In time, that may not be the only significance of the regime change in the Himalayan country where Prime Minister K P Oli was unseated to make way for Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal alias Prachanda (meaning, the Fierce One).
Informed observers agree that Prachanda’s return to office after six years is because New Delhi wanted to send Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli packing. This perception is reinforced by sections of the media and those close to the government welcoming Oli’s exit as being “good for India”.
The implied, approving, references to GoI playing a key role in the change of guard in Kathmandu brings to mind the upbeat mood in New Delhi on the exit of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa in January 2015. After all, that was the first time New Delhi joined the bandwagon of regime change – a regime change in which the US-led “international community” had a big hand.
That was a landmark shift in India’s foreign policy with ramifications for South Asia as well as China. Until then, India did not subscribe to, support or engage in regime change as is the wont of the US. GoI under Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke with that cardinal rule of external affairs.
Yet, as prime minister, Oli failed to read correctly the significance of New Delhi’s role in Sri Lanka for Nepal and his own political survival.
All Nepalese mainstream parties have a strong anti-Indian streak. These parties give full vent to their anti-Indian sentiment when in the opposition. In office, these parties tone down their rhetoric and are compliant when New Delhi seeks “cooperation”. It is an unwritten rule, even before regime change became policy, that being anti-Indian beyond the routine rhetoric would be political suicide for a Nepalese prime minister.
Oli miscalculated and overstepped the bounds of rhetoric. He stood up to New Delhi – in refusing to be dictated to on promulgation of the constitution and its provisions – and sought to play the “China card”. That was his worst “sin”.
He failed to anticipate how the region’s “leading power” would respond and clashed with India in the United Nations on the blockade of Nepal, which he termed “more inhuman than war”.
New Delhi made good use of Oli’s China card to get the European Union and the US to issue joint statements (with India) against Oli’s government. Through all these, including the violent Madhesi agitation, his coalition partner, the Maoists led by Prachanda, were waiting to pull the rug from under his feet.
With Prachanda willing and the Nepali Congress biding time to play king-maker, toppling Oli was child’s play for New Delhi. A nod here and a smile there was all it may have taken to bring about the result GoI wanted.
Now, Nepal is back to the merry-go-round of shifting alliances and revolving door politics that have stabilised instability since the advent of multi-party democracy in 1991.
Like Oli now, last year Rajapaksa had to go, among other reasons, also for being pro-China. After their honeymoon period with the US and India, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are back to doing business as usual with Beijing.
Therefore, upholding the best interests of Nepal, as he has vowed to, would be a tightrope act for Prime Minister Prachanda. Given China’s increasing role in what was seen as “India’s backyard”, he has to keep on the right side of New Delhi and, at the same time, avoid antagonising Beijing.
(The author, an independent political and foreign affairs commentator, is co-editor of the book, State of Nepal. The views expressed are the author’s own.)