Nepal’s new left-wing leaders want balance and prosperity, not to back China against India
Rubeena Mahato writes that Nepal’s newly elected Left Alliance is not doing Beijing’s bidding, but seeks to balance relations between China and India to promote economic growth and political stability
The sweeping victory of the Communist CPN-UML and Maoist Party alliance in Nepal’s election this month has raised alarm bells. The primary concern in the international press seems to be that a communist government will allow China a greater role in a region India sees as its backyard.
There is speculation, mostly from Indian sources, that China has been pulling the levers behind the scenes to help the two major left parties come together. Western media have repeated the claim, with the alliance depicted as a pro-China force and Chinese activities held responsible for India’s diminishing influence in Nepal.
If India’s traditional dominance in Nepal has waned, it is more because of India’s reckless diplomacy. After India imposed an effective blockade against Nepal in 2015-16 for refusing to write a constitution on its terms, Nepal was cut off from fuel and essential supplies for more than five months. Nepal has since looked north for development and diplomatic balance.
It was geographic logic that geared Nepal towards the south but economic and geopolitical logic means it now also engages the north. There is now a consensus across the political spectrum on the need to end Nepal’s exclusive southern orientation and develop better trade and transport links with China.
This was reflected in the election. People voted for a party against the blockade, which promised stability and development and whose leader signed the landmark transit treaty with China as prime minister. They hope the alliance can deliver stable governance and economic development.
Ignoring these factors and crying wolf over Nepal’s “communist takeover” might feed India and the West’s shared paranoia on China, but will do little to repair India-Nepal ties. Indians should resist temptation to get involved in Nepal to undermine the communists and thwart China’s presence. Despite apprehensions about the new government, the electoral mandate is clear and should be respected. Efforts by an external power to break the coalition and play one domestic force against the other will be perceived as a hostile act by Nepalis and further erode goodwill.
And far too much is being made about China as a driving force. China has increased its involvement in the region, but to suggest a left consolidation took place at China’s behest and the incoming government will undermine Indian interests is an exaggeration. In reality, Nepal’s communists have been adherents of the market economy since the establishment of democracy in 1990 and many leaders have close relationships with India. Most domestic forces have sought help from India and China to gain political leverage and both countries have attempted to influence political processes. Their involvement is as effective as local dynamics allow. No country wields absolute power over politics in Nepal.
Nepalis strongly desire to break free from the shackles of political and economic domination. They have seen Asian countries transform themselves in a matter of decades and are eager for similar change. They have seen the rise of China and how the Chinese have lifted millions out of poverty. They have seen in their own country how almost 70 years of Western development aid has done little in comparison.
There is a great disillusionment against what is widely perceived as the proclivity of the Indians and Westerners to get mired in domestic politics and social engineering projects in the name of development and democracy promotion. Nepal is not a “security instrument” to contain China, nor a battleground in the new great game. It is easy to see why the Chinese model, with its strictly economic terms of engagement, is preferable to many, even with concerns about “debt entrapment” among countries dealing with China.
Nepal is pursuing a long history of trade and cultural connection with China that was broken after the British incursion. What the India/West axis sees as Nepal breaking away from its fold, Nepal sees as a much-needed rebalancing.
It is the last few decades that has been an aberration. Nepal was a country that strongly resisted British imperialism in South Asia. Through diplomatic, military and economic means, Nepal maintained an independent existence between two powerful empires. By the turn of the 20th century, when one Himalayan state after another lost partial or full autonomy, Nepal persisted because of its fierce independence and instinct for survival.
It is in the best interests of all three countries for Nepal’s relationship with China to be allowed to evolve on its own and if Nepal is left to solve its issues without India, China and the West getting enmeshed in its domestic politics. Nepal shouldn’t have to be weighed down by the rivalries of big powers and it would be a shame if Nepal lost another chance at prosperity and stability due to geopolitical contestations.
Rubeena Mahato is a Nepali writer. She writes on global politics and development policy