Geopolitical tug-o-war over Nepal

Pushpa Kamal Dahal with Jagat Prakash Nadda, national president of BJP. Photo: JAGAT PRAKASH NADDA/TWITTER

Barely days after Pushpa Kamal Dahal met the visiting head of the International Liaison Department of the Communist Party of China, Liu Jianchao in Kathmandu, he was off to New Delhi.

The undisputed supremo of Nepal’s Maoists has been known to play all sides before, but this puts his balancing act on a whole new level. It also shows that Nepal’s giant neighbours are engaged in a tug-o-war as the country heads for federal and provincial elections on 18 November.

Ever since Nepal was founded as a nation state, the country had to do  a tightrope between British India and the Chinese Empire. Recognising this, Prithvi Narayan Shah famously compared Nepal to a yam ensconced between two boulders, and laid out the doctrine of equidistance.

Inspired by Mao Zedong, Dahal took on the mantle of ‘Prachanda’ to wage an armed struggle that killed 17,000 Nepalis. At the time, Dahal paraphrased Nepal’s founding king, to describe the country as a “dynamite between two boulders”.

Here is a man who in 1998 declared a ‘tunnel war’ to prepare for an Indian invasion, but who spent eight of the ten war years at a safe house in a New Delhi suburb.

After the conflict ended in 2006, Dahal has been prime minister twice. The first time, he had to resign after barely a year in power after overstretching his hand in an unsuccessful bid to sack Nepal Army chief Gen Rookmangud Katuwal in 2009, and replace him with a yes-man.

It did not go unnoticed that President Ram Baran Yadav had to force him out after some critical late night intervention from New Delhi.

Head of the International Liaison Department of the Communist Party of China, Liu Jianchao with Pushpa Kamal Dahal in Kathandu last week.

Last week’s visit by Liu Jianchao and Dahal’s sudden air dash to Delhi prove once more that Nepal’s domestic politics is, more than ever, a reflection of regional geopolitics.

The Chinese, who had so far been content with letting Nepal languish in New Delhi’s sphere of influence have, since Xi Jinping, been taking a keener interest in micro-managing Kathmandu's power corridors.

Beijing’s real worry is not so much about India as it is heightened American activities in Nepal, mainly vis-a-vis Tibet. The active lobbying by the Chinese against the US-supported Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), and lately the scrapped State Partnership Program (SPP) pointed to this.

The Chinese have openly expressed their desire for Nepal’s Communist parties to unite, and actually fulfilled that wish with the merger of the UML and the Maoists into the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) after the alliance’s overwhelming victory in the 2017 election.

And when Dahal fell out with prime minister K P Oli and the power struggle threatened the NCP, Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi shuttled between the Oli and Dahal residences in Kathmandu to patch up their differences.

As it turned out, not only did the NCP split, but so did the UML, the MCC was ratified, and the ruling coalition in Kathmandu adopted a Indo-Western alignment.

This must have unnerved the Mandarins in Beijing, who did not have to send a high level party emissary just to feel the political pulse in Kathmandu. Liu Jianchao's main aim was to reforge Communist unity ahead of November, and do a repeat of 2017.

After all, the Maoists, UML and the Unified Socialists have been trying to suss things out through emissaries. So much so that it has sent off tremors within Nepali Congress (NC), where an anti-Deuba faction led by Shekhar Koirala and Gagan Thapa have been trying to get the party to contest elections on its own.

Ironically, Deuba’s own position within his party is now dependent on the coalition staying intact. This in turn has made the NC almost a junior partner in the coalition, with Dahal asserting himself as heir apparent.

In a meaningful interview in Delhi with Kantipur, Dahal talked about meeting his ‘old friend’ in India’s intelligence apparatus who is Prime Minister Modi's National Security Adviser, and hinted that he had blessings on a rotational prime ministership with Deuba — just as he had with Oli.

The danger in all this dalliance is that closer ties with India now means closer party-to-party ties with the BJP, and the prospect for instability in the Nepali polity that it entails.

All this comes as the Deuba-led coalition completes one year of misrule and miscues. It has outdone the K P Oli administration in pushing through ordinance after ordinance to amend constitutional provisions, has drafted a bill to grant further immunity from prosecution for war crimes among the Maoist militia and the government.

With these tectonic forces at play, the ruling class appears unable and incapable of arresting looming economic collapse.

Read more: Deuba's mixed report card, Editorial