Nepal in political and geopolitical jam


Politically and geopolitically, it is a bit chaotic in Nepal these days. This is the result of an internal power struggle among the political parties overlaid by a clash of civilisations between the East and West with Nepal caught squarely in the middle.

In case of the latter we are being coerced to take sides. This is proving to be difficult since half the country wants to look East (China) to offset the existing Indian dominance, and obtain added economic assistance, if possible, while the other half remains comfortable with the West plus a Hindu-dominated India.

On the internal power struggle, in order to survive, Prime Minister K P Oli is throwing everything at everyone (including the kitchen sink) with some surprising outcomes. He has just turned the table on his main rival in the Nepal Communist Party, co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal, with a back-room deal that has left all other opponents red faced.

On the Lipu Lekh dispute with India, Oli made himself the greatest Nepali nationalist ever to be born (exaggeration intended). Sarita Giri, the lone voice of reason, noticed that the emperor might be naked after all, but the 258 lawmakers who voted in favour of the new map found the emperor fully clothed. This is clearly a nation of political opportunism.

Few sought to understand that the East India Company that signed the Sugauli Treaty in 1816 represented neither the then British Government nor did it represent post-independence India. There are legal issues of adverse possession, control of territory, population and exercise of sovereignty etc that mark nationhood that received zero intellectual rigour.

Even as the Lipu Lekh matter remains unresolved, the claim by Prime Minister Oli last week that Ayodhya, the birthplace of Lord Ram is located in Nepal has further added to his 'nationalist' stature. The banning of the Indian news  channels was yet another feather in the prime minister’s Nepali cap. Neither of the claims or actions may have any merit, but the truth is often irrelevant in the rhetoric of national populism.

There have, however, emerged opportunities and risks as a result of these developments whether deliberate or purely coincidental. It is important to manage them properly to ensure our survival as a nation.

Firstly, India has got the message that Nepal cannot be taken for granted. This opens the possibility of future negotiations on a more equal footing. The risk is that India gets offended (as it often does) and tries to further destabilise Nepal through its proxies that are omnipresent in the Nepali polity.

Secondly, China for the first time has started taking overt interest in Nepal’s internal affairs. The opportunity here is to develop much closer economic relationship with China to offset lopsided 80% trade dependence on India.

The risk here is that both China and India (with its ally the US) will now seek to influence the outcome of Nepali politics in their own favor, and Nepal will become the battleground for influence for the two giant neighbours, or the East vs West for that matter.

Nepal could encounter severe consequences down the road and this seems almost inevitable. It is up to us to manage the outcome by flying straight and level through these turbulent times. The consolation is that nothing can be worse than what we presently have.

Bhairaja Panday is a former senior UN official and he is currently Managing Director of Invest Nepal Pvt Ltd.

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