The Left Alliance (LA), which includes the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) and the CPN Maoist-Centre, has established a clear lead over the Opposition in the recent elections in Nepal. The main opposition party, the Nepali Congress (NC), is set to finish a poor third behind the two communist parties in the first-past-the-post system; the NC is expected to improve its share when the nominees are later chosen on proportional representation. The two communist parties had announced that they would merge after the elections and form a unified CPN. If that should happen, Nepal will get its first single party government in years. Such a course has major implications for Nepal — within the country and in its relations with India and China. An ideologically coherent party at the helm of government could assure political stability. The fragmented nature of the Nepalese polity has been a major reason for the string of unstable coalition governments. Parties that came together in pursuit of power could neither deliver on governance nor complete the country’s transition to a democratic republic that began after the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement in 2006.
The LA’s electoral campaign had a clear anti-India slant and its prime minister-designate KP Oli was vocal about his preference for China over India. Oli was the prime minister during the Madhes agitation of 2015, which crippled trade and transit between India and Nepal. The Oli government held India responsible for the economic crisis and courted China, which stepped in with supplies. Oli also blamed New Delhi when the CPN-UML-led coalition unravelled and was replaced by the unlikely coalition of the NC and the Maoists. New Delhi’s apprehension that bilateral relations could cool under Oli is not entirely unfounded. But being a practical politician, Oli is unlikely to reject any outreach by New Delhi. Besides, geography limits China’s outreach to Kathmandu, while it ties India and Nepal together.
However, New Delhi must ask itself if it needs to invest so much in Nepal’s domestic politics to build influence. Religious, cultural and social ties between people in the two nations make it impossible for India to be indifferent to political faultlines in Nepal. Parties in Nepal too recognise this and often whip up anti-India sentiment to cover up their own failures. The rise of China and its keenness to buy allies in South Asia could change the rules of engagement in the Subcontinent. Nepal, for instance, has showed interest in joining Beijing’s OBOR project. Competing with China’s economic might not be a realistic option, but India could surely leverage its soft power in the neighbourhood. The development of the Buddhist circuit was a promising step. More such initiatives, in the realm of entertainment, arts and culture, education and health, need to be taken up and followed through.