On October 3, 2017, two major Left political parties, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified, Marxist and Leninist (CPN-UML), and the Nepal Communist Party-Maoist (CPN-M), along with a new fraction of the Maoists, the Naya Shakti Party, formed an alliance for the upcoming election for seven provincial legislatures and the federal parliament to be held on November 26 and December 7. However, the Naya Shakti party, days after the alliance formation, exited from it as the party was sidelined in choice-based seat sharing, and aligned instead with the Nepali Congress party.
At the national level, this announcement surprised political observers since the Maoists remain in the government in coalition with the Nepali Congress. This is not the first time that the Maoists and the UML have come together. Prior to the present Nepali Congress-led government, the UML had formed the government with the support of the Maoists under the leadership of KP Oli in 2015. The Maoists had blamed Oli for not respecting the terms of the power-sharing agreement and in May 2016, Maoist chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal alias Prachanda withdrew support from the coalition and formed the government with the support of the Nepali Congress party. The Maoists also continued their alliance with the Nepali Congress in the recently-concluded local body elections where they came in third with the Nepali Congress securing second place.
Similarly, the news injected a wave of mixed opinions in the international fora, especially in India and China. The alliance defied the calculations of the South Block in New Delhi. New Delhi had lately been lobbying with the top brass of the Nepali Congress in anticipation that the Maoists would realign with the former for the upcoming elections, assuring a reachable political space in Nepal, but the long-secret talks between the UML and Maoists have foiled these hopes. Notably, Nepal’s transition from a feudal monarchy to constitutional democracy in last decade has tested India’s Nepal policy, precisely in terms of approach and functionalities. Critics argue that India’s party-centric approach, rather than maintaining a reliable and balanced relationship with Nepal, has failed to provide the desired results to India.
On the other hand, China has called this a fruitful development towards a stable Nepal. For a long time, China has maintained a policy of not commenting on the internal developments of Nepal on public platforms. However, China remains one of the influential actors in the Nepalese polity. Professor Dai Yonghong of the China Center for South Asia Studies at Sichuan University sees the Left Alliance as a great opportunity for the long-awaited political stability in Nepal. He also commented that China looks forward to friendly and peaceful cooperation with Nepal, and that by joining the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in May 2017, the government of Nepal, irrespective of the leadership, has affirmed its commitment for the sustainable development of Nepal.
Following the constitutional promulgation on September 20, 2015, an earthquake-stricken Nepal suffered a four-month-long blockade at a major trade route at the India-Nepal border, allegedly imposed by India. As a result, Nepal utilized the opportunity to reach out to China for the supply of necessary utility items. Also, just two days before the inaugural BRI Forum in China, Nepal signed to become part of the ambitious project. It was one of the major departures of Nepal from its reliance on India towards balanced cooperation with China. As the BRI took a leap forward with its clear future course in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s three-and-a-half hour speech at the nineteenth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October 2017, it was apparent from Xi’s speech that the global outreach of China will be conducted under the BRI umbrella, and the record seven-times mention of the BRI in his speech makes a strong case in this regard. This provides reassurance of the commitment of China to Nepal of its continued cooperation in the several sectors of development.
In contrast, India’s outreach in the region has fallen prey to a long-standing bilateral issue with neighbouring countries — India-Pakistan tensions. As a result, platforms like the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) are deficient in acceptable and visionary regional leadership. The alternative arrangement deployed by India to save the regional bargain runs on a snail shell syndrome. In this situation, Nepal’s rising trade deficit with India, changing public perceptions after the blockade, and deadlocks on several development projects to be developed by India, show the dire need for confidence-building measures.
The vague ideological foundations of UML and the Maoists offer the least of socialism, and a future authoritarian government cannot be overruled.
This will be the third time that Nepalese will participate in parliamentary elections, the first being in 2008 and the second in 2012. This is timely for Nepal as the new constitution promulgated in 2015 provides a clear face for its legislative, executive and judicial branches. This comes following the delay caused by the political impasse over the constitutional promulgation, which will become a reality after the elections.
Observers in India see the ongoing developments in Nepal as a forward-looking solution to the prolonged political instability in Nepal. The upcoming elections will be held as per the provision in the new constitution, and this will further strengthen the constitution. Nonetheless, the constitutional amendments concerning the rights of the people belonging to Terai (southern part of Nepal) remain unresolved to date. It will be interesting to see the crucial role of the two major Terai-based regional parties, the Rashtriya Janata Party-Nepal (RJP-N) and the Sanghiya Samajbadi Forum-Nepal.
Further, Nepal’s leadership crisis has intensified in the last six years. By resigning from the post of the Prime Minister nine months after he assumed power in May 2017, Prachanda paved the way for the present Prime Minister Deuba to lead the coalition government until the new Parliament becomes functional. Although this had provided hopes for long-lasting political stability, the Left Alliance faces tangible challenges.
First, UML, being the largest party in the alliance, and its satisfactory performance in the recently-concluded local body elections, challenges the ideality and existence of the Maoist party even as they align with them. Second, the impending issues of constitutional amendments, the peace process, and the slow pace of relief works following the 2015 earthquake, will create a further political vacuum. Third, an ideological unity and merger of UML and the Maoists in the post-election phase seem utopian precisely because of the existing rift within the UML leadership. It was clearly seen during the seat allotment process for the upcoming elections and indicates a more uncertain political agenda of the two parties. Notably, the “Nepali communist movement has witnessed a series of splits and disintegrations since its inception some 68 years ago.” Even though by aligning with his staunch longtime critic, KP Oli, Prachanda has secured his political relevance, the vote share will still be crucial in deciding the future course of the Left Alliance.
Fourth, on the foreign policy front, the patriotic UML remains China-friendly whereas the Maoists will have a puzzling time balancing their equation with India. The recent cancellation of the Budhi Gandaki project, a 1200-MW hydropower project that had been awarded to the Chinese firm Gejuwa, on transparency grounds by the Nepali Congress party-led government, is seen as part of a political vendetta. Oli has left no stone unturned in raising this issue at several election rallies and his promise to overturn the government’s decision in case the Left Alliance forms the next government will have serious implications for Nepal’s relationship with India. A Left Alliance victory in the forthcoming provincial and federal elections will push India to rethink its policy grounds to move from the established structure of a unilateral party/individual to a more multilateral shareholder based interaction with Nepal.
To conclude, as UML chairman KP Oli calls for establishing a communist form of governance after the elections, an intense debate on its nature has begun to surface. The vague ideological foundations of UML and the Maoists offer the least of socialism, and a future authoritarian government cannot be overruled. Yet, the elections will provide a clear map to a new order of relationship between the provinces and the federation, helping the country achieve a new transparency in its development.