Why India was blindsided in Nepal government formation

Bharat Bhushan

With the ascendance of Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda as Prime Minister of Nepal and India’s bete noir K P Sharma Oli playing king-maker, the Indian establishment has come a cropper in the Himalayan nation. It was betting the house on a favourite, Sher Bahadur Deuba, whose party, the Nepali Congress although short of majority had won the largest number of the seats in Parliament. Oli outmanoeuvred India’s play and installed Prachanda in the top job, sacrificing his immediate ambitions for long-term goals.

The US and the European nations were also outdone in Kathmandu. They too had backed Deuba, who boasted that he enjoyed the support of “both Washington and Delhi.” Their aim was to prevent the coming together of Prachanda’s Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) and Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist).

The US fear of Communists is easy to understand, because the two Left parties had been opposing the American Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) fund, a US$500 million pledge for infrastructural development. They suspected it had hidden security dimensions. The last Deuba-government had got it ratified in Parliament despite opposition from its coalition partner, Prachanda’s CPN (Maoist Centre), assuring Parliament that the MCC funding would not be allowed to draw in Nepal as part of US military strategy.

The Indian establishment chose to become the junior partner of the US in trying to keep the Communists at bay. In addition to the diplomatic efforts of India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh also became active in trying to shape Nepal’s politics. Rumours have it  that influence was exerted through a politically ambitious family member of Sher Bahadur Deuba. He was put under pressure to not let Prachanda take the first turn as prime minister for the first two-and-half-years, and to take the job himself. This suited his own ambition but was a clear backtracking from the understanding with Prachanda.

Prachanda himself has good relations with India but his past dalliance with ‘anti-India’ Oli, his opposition to restoration of even symbolic monarchy, and his communism has cast him as an unreliable partner with the Hindutva establishment. Deuba’s breach of promise at any rate pushed Prachanda towards Oli. The Indian stakeholders in Nepal, including the non-government ones, seem to have made two cardinal mistakes: One, their insistence on backing an old political establishment without understanding that the political ground reality had changed; and two, they did not have a fall-back option within the Nepali Congress as serious challengers to Deuba had been advised to step back

Conspiracy theorists in Kathmandu claim that India is worst off for the moment as the US and the Europeans had worked on alternative scenarios. They apparently encouraged young Gagan Thapa as  a possible alternative in case Deuba lost the battle for the leadership of the Nepali Congress MPs. Another winner with a strong US connection is Rabi Lamichhane, a first time MP who has dramatically risen to become Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister. This surmise is based on the fact that Lamichhane had acquired US citizenship between 2007 and 2017 but renounced it in 2018. As he had never revoked his Nepali citizenship during this period he claimed to be a Nepali citizen. However dual citizenship is illegal in Nepal, and the matter is now being investigated. Whether this will yeild results for his opponents is a moot question as Lamichhane is now Home Minister. Whether this is sufficient to see him as an American ally is however doubtful, as is the pro-American tag given to C K Raut, leader of the Janmat Party in the coalition, who was earlier a US Defence Programmer.

None of this will provide any solace to Indian policy makers. Their ignorance of changing ground realities in Nepal was evident in the failure to appreciate the importance of the formation of the youth-centric Rastriya Swatantra Party led by journalist turned politician Lamichhane. It won 20 seats in its debut performance. India also did not take seriously the factional challenge by Gagan Thapa to Deuba’s leadership. It also ignored the change in public mood when a rank outside and a rapper, Balendra Shah, won the Kathmandu mayoral election defeating the established political parties in May this year

To attribute the Prachanda-Oli coalition to China’s intervention may be only partly correct. It is true that Prachanda’s comrade and former Finance Minister Barshaman Pun spent two weeks in China recently for medical treatment. Pun has been a votary of the CPN(MC) and CPN (UML) alliance, and it may be that the Chinese worked through him. However, such conspiracy theories cannot hide the Indian failure in Nepal.  

The problem with the Indian establishment is that it is still caught up in old frameworks of a shared religion and culture, where India’s ties with the Nepalese people is summed up in rhetoric like “Roti, Beti ka Rishta” (people sharing marriage ties). The religious link is especially important for the BJP and the RSS. However, India’s interests in Nepal or Nepal’s in India can no longer be driven by religious, cultural and familial ties.

The old political elite with which India is fixated and has enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship, is fast dwindling. Gone also are the days when Nepalese students studied in India and continued their lifelong friendships and sympathetic view of India when they went back. Nepal’s own education system has expanded and improved beyond recognition. And as they have to pay dollar fees in India, the Nepalese elite prefers to send their children to the US instead. Nepalese youth – from their music to their sartorial sense – is as global in their outlook today as any in the world. Not only is their view of politics and political leaders different from that of previous  generations, they tend to view India as an overbearing Big Brother.

India’s focus, on achieving control over Nepalese politics by manipulation of leadership struggles at the top is outdated. The Indian establishment’s sole focus on an ancien regime is what blindsided it in Nepal.