In less than a week, Nepal should have a new prime minister — its 24th in 26 years. The unlamented resignation of Khadga Prasad Oli this week tells us something about the hubris of those charged with leading the country’s complex, multi-ethnic democracy. For New Delhi, though, the story ought to also be a cautionary tale, about the perils of using its patronage and power to influence events in that country.
Oli, under whose leadership Nepal’s relationship with New Delhi plummeted to an all-time low, was, in key senses, a monster of India’s own making. Following the decision of Nepal’s Maoist leadership to enter democratic politics — a decision India backed — New Delhi’s relationship with former guerrilla leader Pushpa Kumar Dahal “Prachanda” became increasingly fraught. Fearing that Prachanda hoped to establish a one-party state with Chinese backing, New Delhi began supporting other communists. Key among them was Oli, who had enjoyed a good relationship with New Delhi in the past: The old-guard communist received funding for projects in his constituency, backing for his party work, and even help with his medical treatment in New Delhi.
The September 2015 constitution, which was seen as disenfranchising Nepal’s plains people, was to mark a breaking point in Oli’s relationship with the Narendra Modi government. Oli defied New Delhi’s pressure to accommodate the demands of the Madhesis, people living in Nepal’s plains who are linked by kinship and caste to Bihar. Violence flared, and after police shot dead more than 40 protesters, New Delhi not-so-secretly backed a blockade of transport routes to Nepal’s hills by the Madhesis. As hardship grew in Nepal’s hills, with the blockade causing fuel shortages and inflation through the winter, Oli responded with ugly chauvinism, casting the Madhesis as agents of an India determined to turn Nepal into a colony.
In May, though, the wheel began to turn again. Prachanda feared that Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) had begun eating into the constituency of his own Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre). He was also concerned that the government was not acting to ensure the termination of criminal cases against his cadre, related to the civil war in the country. Diplomatic pressure from China deferred, but did not reverse, Prachanda’s decision to bring down the government. New Delhi did well to watch these events from the sidelines — and must continue just that policy. In the coming months, the new government — likely, a complex alliance between the Nepal Congress, Prachanda’s communists and small parties — will struggle to heal ethnic wounds. New Delhi weighing in on one side will make its task harder — and, in the end, subvert India’s real national interest, a stable Nepal.