Narendra Modi was cheered as a hero and trustworthy friend during his two visits to Nepal in July and November of 2014. He conveyed the impression that he had introspected about the grievances Nepalis had nursed over the years against its giant neighbour to the south. He said India would support Nepal’s journey to a federal republican order, speed up its projects in Nepal and finish them on deadline and that India recognised Nepal as the country of Buddha’s birth. More importantly, he said India will be dealing with Nepal as an integrated whole, and not separately with the adjoining Tarai, or the distant hills and mountains, through different channels.
His words were meant to assuage the fear in the Nepali mind that India under Modi will bow to pressure from the RSS and do everything to restore Nepal’s monarchy and its status as a Hindu nation. He also gave the impression that India will not allow its diplomatic and intelligence agencies to dabble in Nepal’s internal politics, and that India and Nepal together will embark on a journey of development with full trust and confidence in each other.
But getting India out of Nepal’s internal politics was easier said than done. Rajendra Mahato, a prominent leader of the Madhesi Front, now called the Rastriya Janata Party, soon after his party’s humiliating defeat in the constituent assembly elections in 2013, said it was less of his, and more of “India’s defeat”. In September 2015, Mahato took the lead in burning the constitution that Nepal’s constituent assembly promulgated and India refused to welcome. He subsequently expressed solidarity with the Madhes groups that blocked trade points for five months and stifled Nepal’s economy. It created an anti-India sentiment that continues in the country.
The government of the day led by K.P. Oli, who is also the chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist, identified totally with the prevailing national sentiment. Ever since the Indian establishment has perceived him as “China’s man”. However, Indian diplomats who decided the radical agenda for Nepal in 2005 with about half a dozen Nepali actors including the leaders of the CPM-Maoist, Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML, continue to believe that Oli represents only a fringe sentiment of the “hill elites” and that India continues to enjoy tremendous goodwill, decisive influence and respect across the length and breadth of the country.
However, the final outcomes of the local body elections held in 616 local bodies across six of the seven proposed provinces indicate that the UML has been able to establish control over 278 of them, including in the Tarai region. The CPN-UML has pushed the Nepali Congress to second place and the Maoists to a distant third position. Oli built bridges with China as India used a two-pronged strategy: It refused to recognise Nepal’s Constitution, and used the blockade to force Kathmandu to concede demands for the “most generous” citizenship laws for Madhes and give Madhesis representation in the elected bodies in proportion to the community’s population, a move that placed the thinly populated hills and mountains at a bigger disadvantage. Oli also agreed to diversify the bilateral relationship with China through new trade and transit agreements, and join the Belt and Road Initiative, something which has since become the irreversible basis of Nepal’s bilateral relations with the north.
Oli’s party believes that the grassroots support it has got was largely because of the “nationalist stand” it took during the blockade crisis. It believes that the trend will continue when the country goes for the provincial and federal elections by January next year.
No one knows if Indian Ambassador Manjeev Puri’s recent advice to the RJP to join the electoral process under the constitution they have rejected throughout on India’s advice was any indicator that the Modi government has started dealing with one “integrated” Nepal. But the RJP feels let down. It has nothing to justify its earlier boycott and border-picketing, which lead to the blockade. The Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), which aggressively maintained a pro-Hindutva and constitutional monarchy stance, suffered a total rout in the local bodies elections this time around. The RPP was the fourth largest party in the last parliamentary elections. The Nepali Congress and the Maoists think that the RPP leadership was not vigorous in championing its key issues, which enabled the UML to get the support of the “nationalists” comprising the monarchists, pro-Hindutva and “anti-Indian” voters.
On Friday, the former king, Gyanendra Shah, was greeted by large segments of the society from across regions at an assembly on his 71st birthday. The crowd, which included a large number of youth, wished him a return to his former office as a symbol of “unity”. “I have been through ups and downs in my life, but I take the convergence of a diverse population to greet me today as proof of a strong sentiment in favour of the country’s unity, peace and progress,” he said.
With the local bodies elections going the UML way, the ruling coalition comprising the Maoists and the Nepali Congress may not find it easy to run the government. The coalition will be under pressure from the UML as well as the pro-monarchy and traditional forces, which, separately and together, are likely to insist on a fresh conciliatory approach to ensure political stability. India must recognise that anti-Indian sentiments are visible everywhere, as it was mirrored in the local bodies election.