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  • Omar Khan

Nepal Caught in US-China Crossfire

“During the war we machine gunned our enemies, now we sit around a table and sip tea with them.”

Pushpa Kamal Dahal, known as Prachanda, was addressing his Maoist guerrilla fighters in Chitwan, south central Nepal, less than a year after signing the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Accord which ended a decade-long civil war. Referring to his insurgent group’s entry into politics, he told his men: “The method may be different, but the goal is the same.”

On 20 November 2022, Nepal held only its second general election since the end of the war and monarchy fourteen years ago. For those hoping for stability, the results don’t look good.

Prachanda, leader of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre (CPN-MC), is one of several veteran politicians currently vying for power. His party came third, winning around 30 seats. The two largest parties, Nepali Congress led by Sher Bahadur Deuba, and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) led by KP Sharma Oli, won about 90 and 80 seats respectively. Effectively this means that, once again in Nepal, some unstable coalition of ideologically-opposed parties (whose leaders don’t particularly like each other) will probably form the next government. Undoubtedly, an unstable Nepali government will struggle to deploy a foreign policy strategy that carefully balances the interests of India, China, and the US, three geopolitical heavyweights keen to expand their influence.

The only thing clear about this election was voter frustration. The popular “No, Not Again” campaign encouraged Nepalis to replace established politicians – the marked success of the fourth-place Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP) founded only six months ago by television personality Rabi Lamichhane is testament to this. With a low turnout, the mandate wasn’t just weak, it was fractured: Nepal has a mixed electoral system featuring first-past-the-post and proportional representation which was introduced to ensure minority communities were represented. While established politicians (like current, five-time Prime Minister Deuba, three-time ex-prime minister Oli, and two-time Prachanda) were returned in first-past-the-post seats, younger reformists (like those of RSP) were elected to seats with proportional representation.

A weak and fractured mandate was not surprising. Frustration with the lack of service delivery and endless political manoeuvrings has spread across a divided nation, struggling in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake and COVID-19 pandemic. Nepal has had thirteen governments in the last sixteen years, and domestic politics are heavily influenced by foreign powers. Take the build-up to this election, for example. Both Kathmandu’s relationship with India and China were major issues, the focus on New Delhi’s Agnipath scheme and Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Additionally, in February, officers outside parliament fired tear gas at protestors demonstrating against the ratification of the Millennium Change Corporation (MCC), a $500 million US grant which opponents claimed came with strings attached. As for internal Nepali politics, calling the scene messy is putting it gently.

On 4 February 1996, Baburam Bhattarai and his colleague Pampha Bhusal tried to enter the Singha Durba palace, which houses the government, in Kathmandu. Bhusal, at the time, was the only woman on the central committee of the underground Maoist party recently established by Prachanda. Only after Bhusal blocked a minister’s car, were they granted a meeting with Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba, who was then just a few months into his first stint as prime minister. They presented him with a list of forty demands, threatening insurrection if they were not met. Needless to say, they were ignored. Nine days later, guerrilla forces attacked a police post in Rolpa district, western Nepal triggering a conflict that would kill 13,000 people.

The world’s last Hindu monarchy had only just introduced multiparty democracy in 1990 (after a short experiment in the 1950s). King Birendra, whose father Mahendra terminated the country’s first popular government in 1961, appointed an interim administration led by Congress and the United Leftist Movement (ULM). The ULM was one of several communist factions that jostled for power with Congress and the king amid police suppression of left-wing movements. Tensions culminated in war. Five years into the insurgency, Birendra and much of the royal family were shot dead by Prince Dipendra in a palace massacre on 1 June 2001. That year: the new Armed Police Force escalated the conflict; peace talks between the government and Maoists collapsed; Birendra’s brother, Gyanendra became king; and, a state of emergency was declared. In 2005, Gyanendra dissolved parliament, declaring an absolute monarchy – on 19 November that year, Maoist insurgents agreed to work with leaders of the democracy movement. In April 2006, GP Koirala (brother of Congress’ founder) was installed as prime minister as democracy was restored. Peace came later that year and in 2008, the monarchy was abolished.

What followed was a decade of political infighting, collapsing coalitions and a constitutional re-write, culminating in the first general election in 2017. Prachanda and Oli, in spite of their incompatible policies, made a pre-poll alliance that seemed to convince voters. The general understanding was that Prachanda would serve as prime minister after Oli. Instead, the CPN-UML leader, bickering with the CPN-MC leader, tried and failed to dissolve parliament. He lost a vote of no confidence and was replaced as prime minister in July 2021 by Congress leader Deuba who had joined forces with Prachanda. Those who remembered when Deuba placed a bounty on Prachanda’s head during the war may have raised their eyebrows at this moment.

But the array of political “marriages of convenience” got weirder. In the run-up to elections this year, Oli allied with the Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP), his party’s arch-nemesis. (The JSP advocates for Madhesi rights). Even stranger, Oli (who, as a reminder, leads the anti-monarchist Communist Party of Nepal-UML) also campaigned alongside the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), a royalist group that came fifth in the election. These opportunistic, unnatural alliances have, according to the Kathmandu Post, turned elections “into a dance of undemocratic coalitions as political parties hanker to return to power, by all means, fair and foul.”

The ruling coalition, an alliance between Congress and the Maoists they were at war with earlier this century, looked set to fracture over the MCC which Prachanda and his ideological allies thought was a blatant attempt by Washington to pull Nepal into its sphere of influence. Deuba maintained the MCC would be restricted by Nepali sovereignty. Ultimately, the coalition survived (and the MCC was ratified in February 2022) out of fear – both partners saw Oli as a threat. (During his premiership, despite heading a united communist party with Prachanda, Oli worked to isolate both Prachanda and Madhav Kumar Nepal, leader of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Socialist (CPN-US), a CPN-UML splinter group which came seventh in this month’s election after the JSP.)

All parties campaigned on promises to provide economic growth, climate action, jobs, and a “balanced” foreign policy – but they seemed to disagree on what “balanced” means. Oli touted himself as the only candidate who could stand up to Indian pressure, accusing Deuba of weakness. Both the CPN-US and Prachanda’s CPN-MC said they would review relations with New Delhi, with the CPN-MC emphasising the recruitment of Gorkha soldiers in India via the Agnipath scheme as an issue. While Deuba’s advocacy for the MCC, according to his critics, betrays an anti-China bias, all parties are weary of getting too close to Beijing. Overall, if the campaigns achieved anything, it was proving that Nepal’s political scene was deeply divided and building consensus would be a monumental task.

Caught in a political tug-of-war between Beijing, Washington and New Delhi, the CPN-MC’s policy of declaring Nepal a “Zone of Peace” (also advocated by the RPP since the idea was first King Birendra’s) doesn’t seem like a bad idea. The plan, opposed by Congress and historically by India, does however seem increasingly inaccurate. With tensions rising, political consensus unlikely and foreign powers encroaching on the Himalayan state, can it still really be called a genuine zone of peace?


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