Kathmandu: Millions of people began voting on Sunday to elect a new Parliament and provincial Assemblies amid tight security. Polling started at 7 AM local time at over 22,000 polling centers, hoping to end the political instability that has plagued the nation for more than a decade and impeded growth. The future of the democratic experiment itself seems to be at stake as Nepal votes to elect its 11th government since 2008.
Voters are already in widespread anger and despair. India has vital stakes in the country and is keeping its cards close, waiting and watching. The Neapli Congress led by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, the communist Unified Marxist-Leninst (UML) party led by KP Sharma Oil, and the Maoist Centre led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal are the main political leaders of this electoral fray. The compulsion of winning election in democratic politics often rakes up the issue of safeguarding national interest from an external entity. India has played the role of ‘external factor’ in Nepal’s political discourse.
Both nations share 1800-km long open borders and are considered ‘world’s closest neighbors’ due to an extremely unique geography. A sizeable section of Nepal’s Gorkha population are also serving in the Indian Army and the Nepal; army chief is designated as honorary general of Indian Army to mark respect.
However, the India-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship 1950 has been a prolonged contentious issue in relations between the two neighbors, as Nepal continues to consider it an instrument for India to influence its domestic affairs, especially in the pivotal areas of foreign policy. Contrarily, India sees itself as a power responsible for providing assistance in the developmental architecture of Nepal. What a paradox!
Nepal also looks upon its other powerful Asian neighbor China for its developmental needs and economic assistance. As India and China are locked in territorial conflicts, Nepal’s balancing tactics between India and China has often implicitly raked up suspicion in the minds of the Indian government.
While KP Oli is known for his inclination towards China, Sher Bahadur Deuba is seen to be close to India. This discourse of the presence of the ‘Indian factor in Nepalese politics has been a constant element of its democratic politics, especially after the outstanding border disputes between the two nations raked up once again in 2020 as Nepal raised concern over India’s construction of a new 80-km road in Himalayas near Lipulekh pass. From India’s point of view, this was crucial to establish the quickest link between Delhi and the Tibetan plateau, but Nepal took a slew of measures to register its protest by summoning the Indian envoy in Nepal and deploying police forces in the region. The issue of competing territorial claims was manifested in Nepalese outrage over Indian government’s publication of a new political map. Further, it triggered huge resentment against India that was reflected in the social media hashtag #BackoffIndia.
Earlier in 2018, Nepal refrained from attending BIMSTEC counter-terrorism exercise in apprehension that it would be perceived as an anti-China stance. Nepal faced reservations from China to recive grants from US for developing its electricity transmission system and linking with the Indian power grid.
Thus, careful balancing act between India and China remains one of the major challenges for Nepal’s political elite. Politics of Nepal is not only inextricably linked to the historical and cultural cross-border dynamics with India, but is also shaped by geo-political tussle between India and China.