India’s options in responding to the China problem in Nepal

Interpreting the India-Nepal border dispute

by Rushali Saha     18 January 2021

Prime Minister K.P Oli’s “sudden” dissolution of Nepal’s parliament’s lower house, albeit unprecedented, should not come as a surprise to those following Nepal’s domestic politics— which has been marred by a power tussle for a long time now. In its 2018 electoral victory, K.P. Oli’s government—formed out of the unification of CPM-UML and CPN Maoist Centre—managed to secure outside support from the Madhes based parties, making his government the only one to enjoy two-thirds strength in the parliament since 1959. However, cracks were visible very soon when the Socialist Party withdrew support in 2019 as Prime Minister Oli failed to keep the pre alliance agreement of the constitution amendment. Intraparty rifts due to the repeatedly unsuccessful power-sharing agreement between Oli and Prachanda also came out in the open early on. Although organizational splits, government changes have always been a feature of Nepali politics since 1993. What is unique in the present crisis is China’s external manipulation of a fragile domestic situation to achieve its own strategic aims.

Serious rifts in Nepal’s ruling party became publicly visible in early May 2020 as rival factions led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Madhav Kumar Nepal demanded PM Oli’s resignation. Meanwhile, the Chinese ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi held a series of meetings with senior NCP leaders where she advised “party unity.” Although the need for a unified response to COVID-19 and to deal with the border rift with India provided a rationale to hold the factions together, it proved to be only temporary. Fast-forward to roughly six months later, K.P. Oli is fighting rival factions at the Election Commission to retain its claim of being the “real” party.

What lies ahead for Nepal? Immediately, the most likely scenario is that the Supreme Court will declare Oli’s unilateral decision to dissolve the parliament ultra vires as neither was there a no-confidence motion against him nor did the NCP officials ask him to quit. The 1991 Constitution had provisions for the dissolution of Parliament at the Prime Minister’s prerogative but was scrapped in 2006. During the time it was in force, it was used to dissolve the Parliament thrice arbitrarily. Although the 2015 constitution does not have a clear provision for House dissolution, all articles related to dissolution are in the context of a hung parliament, hence not applicable to a government with a two-thirds majority. It is worth noting that the 1991 Constitution did have a provision for dissolution of Parliament at the Prime Minister’s prerogative, which was used thrice until it was scrapped in 2006. “Continued non-cooperation” as the reason for dissolution is therefore unlikely to hold up to constitutional scrutiny. In case the Supreme Court does uphold the decision, elections will be held, most likely with Prachanda and Oli competing from rival parties for the Prime Ministerial position. Given the main opposition party, Nepali Congress’s, public criticism of Oli’s move—it is unlikely to form a united front in case elections are held. Thousands of citizens have taken to the streets to protest Oli’s political actions indicating deepening dissatisfaction against him at a time when Nepal’s botched response to the pandemic caused serious distress as many lives were lost and the economy seriously affected. Therefore, the possibility of Oli being reinstated with the same majority is low, given his repeated mistakes over the last three years. However, during the interim period, Oli will inevitably continue to be at the helm of affairs and will abuse his powers to pass ordinances to strengthen his position, as he has done in the past.  Overall, the very public intra-party spats when Nepal was dealing with the pandemic has seriously caused the Nepal Communist Party’s reputation to suffer. Either way, the only certain thing is that Nepal is inching closer to political instability with every passing day.

The breakdown of Nepal’s Communist Party’s unity was inevitable, given how external actors with vested interests artificially imposed it. China—which has been trying to expand its influence in India’s immediate neighbourhood—has been actively expanding engagement with Nepal, even upgrading ties from “comprehensive” to “strategic” during President Xi’s visit in 2019. As evident from the  MoU signed between The Nepal Communist Party and the Chinese Communist Party before the aforementioned visit, Party to party diplomacy has been a central pillar in these burgeoning ties.  Given the unique nature of China’s relations with fraternal communist parties, NCP victory effectively paved the way for the Chinese to directly exert their influence and establish primacy in a country with which India has a long standing association of over 200 years. Therefore, China has the most to lose with the party’s split and has put all its diplomatic energy into avoiding this split. The most recent example of this being— dispatching a four-member high-level CCP delegation to interact directly with Prachanda and Oli and other senior leaders to patch up differences. China would prefer the existing arrangement to remain in place, with Oli remaining the Prime Minister and Prachanda and former Prime Minister Madhav Nepal as the party’s co-chairs. But Beijing’s overriding concern is to keep the communist party in Nepal in power without splitting it where personalities such as Oli and Prachanda are secondary actors.

Although India has proclaimed the current political tussle to be an “internal affair,” which it is, New Delhi cannot afford to be a bystander as Beijing treats Kathmandu as a mere pawn in its larger geopolitical ambitions. As a neighbor with which India shares its borders—a  march back to monarchy would threaten regional stability, and the progress of India aided developmental projects. Nepali politicians have long exploited geopolitical narratives created by the involvement of external actors to draw attention away from their own domestic failings. For example, when Nepal struggled with the economic impact of Covid-19 and the factional feud, K.P. Oli baselessly accused the Indian embassy of trying to oust him to draw attention away from his own failures. Clearly, the limits of such an approach have been exposed. Despite recent hiccups in relations with Nepal due to the Kalapani dispute, India did not disrupt its developmental assistance to Nepal. It continued to engage with the country diplomatically—therefore insulating their relationship from irreparable damage. India must tread carefully and avoid getting tangled in the domestic web of Nepal’s politics, but it must not remain inactive either.  If India remains a passive player, it will have to pay the penalty for it. Being the world’s largest democracy globally and as a responsible member of the international community, India cannot accept how the Chinese are playing their cards to influence Nepal’s internal affairs, which is gravely injurious to India’s own interests. India possesses the cultural, ideological, and political resources to meet this challenge, and it must use them adroitly to ensure the delicate regional balance in South Asia is maintained. India must exert its diplomatic leverage to expose Beijing’s brazen meddling in Nepal’s internal affairs by sensitising  its citizens of the risks of falling into a potential Chinese debt trap. Arguably, India’s strongest weapon to do so is the strong people to people ties it shares with Nepal, who are bound together by ties of language, culture, and food. Unlike Beijing, which brazenly violates Nepal’s sovereignty by interfering in its internal affairs, India’s nuanced approach must utilise the  Track II diplomatic tools, i.e., fostering ties through think tanks, intellectuals, NGOs, etc. This would reaffirm to the people that India is working for Nepal’s best interests and not to achieve some larger strategic objective.

With the Chinese seeking international legitimacy for their domestic governance model by highlighting its rapid recovery from the COVID pandemic, Beijing is trying to portray an ideological nexus with Nepal, which allows it to consolidate its strategic presence in the country. However, such an approach is fundamentally flawed since, unlike China, Nepal has a constitutionally guaranteed republican order and an inclusive democracy. Nevertheless, Nepal’s young history as a democracy and its economic weaknesses makes it particularly vulnerable to foreign interference, which India must resist.

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