Sher Bahadur Deuba’s Victory: What Does it Mean for Nepal’s Neighbourhood?

Sher Bahadur Deuba’s Victory: What Does it Mean for Nepal’s Neighbourhood?

The electoral turmoil in Nepal witnessed a new development, when on the 20th of December, 2020 the nation’s president, Bidya Devi Bhandari dissolved its parliament. Months of uncertainty in Government, coupled with the disastrous impact of the pandemic drove the nation to a political stalemate, until Sher Bahadur Deuba secured the position of Prime Minister with the backing of the parliament. What is the future course that the new Nepalese government will take and how will it shape their future in the region?   K.P Sharma Oli’s exit has stalled China’s rapprochement of Nepal, leaving a vacuum that can be filled by neighbouring aspirations from India. Nepal’s future in the South Asian neighbourhood will be marked by its management of the two regional powers, and a potential balancing act that can protect its self interests.

Giving context to current events in Nepal

The months leading up to the parliament’s dissolution in Nepal were marked by escalating tensions within the central government, which was headed by the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), a coalition of the NCP United Marxists and Leninists and NCP Maoist Centre. A fracture emerged between the two ruling factions when the leader of the NCP-MC, Pushpa Kumar Dahal, realised that Prime Minister K.P Sharma Oli (NCP-UML) would not rotate the seat of Prime Minister as earlier decided. Questions had previously been raised about Oli’s leadership, following his failure to tackle the COVID-19 crisis. Critics also objected to his failure to address worsening economic conditions or make progress on plans to connect India, China and Nepal by rail.

This prompted Dahal to withdraw his support to the Oli led government. In a vote of confidence, Oli only secured 93 votes, failing to form a majority and was hence relieved of his duties as per article 100(3) of the constitution of Nepal. In view of COVID-19 cases spiking in the country, the Apex court of Nepal reinstated the dissolved parliament, where despite his attempts, Oli failed to produce a majority.

Avoiding snap reelection, political stalwart and 4 time PM Sher Bahadur Deuba of Nepali Congress came to power with 165/275 seats in the Parliament and was elected as the Prime Minister of Nepal. His appointment as PM has paved the way for a revitalisation of Nepal’s multilateral endeavours within its neighbourhood. It opens up new opportunities for Deuba to move away from China and chart a new and more independent approach to Nepal’s foreign policy.

Nepal’s newly elected Prime Minister | Photo Credit: AP

Nepal’s last few years in the South Asian subcontinent

With the growing influence of China and both India and China seeking diplomatic leverage through bilateral relations in the neighbourhood, Nepal has an opportunity to occupy a more central role in the affairs of the South Asian subcontinent. However, under PM Oli, Nepal prioritised relations with China, agreeing to 9 projects under the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. That being said, India still remains a key strategic partner and the landlocked country’s primary access to warm water ports. Nepal also makes use of three inland waterways through the Indian river Ganga, this eases Nepal’s transit to the port of Haldia and provides a convenient route for imported goods and other cargo to reach the landlocked country.

Oli’s foreign policy was driven by a nationalistic imperative which strained Nepal’s relations with India. Tensions flared between the two countries when a new political map was published by the Ministry of Land Management of Nepal in May 2020. The map included three territories which are also recognised by India as a part of its own state. India cautioned Nepal against acting unilaterally, preferring a co-operative approach. While still unresolved, a peaceful conclusion might be possible now that Oli has left the government.

What’s in store for India and Nepal?

Deuba’s foreign policy in his previous tenures as the PM favoured India. His recent invitation to Surya Bhusal to join the Nepal Congress suggests this trajectory will continue. Bhusal, the chairman of the Nepal-India Human Development and Friendship Association lobbies for closer ties with India.

This reposturing of Nepal’s foreign policy seems to be welcomed by Indian politicians. Indian PM Narendra Modi was one of the first international leaders to personally call Deuba and congratulate him on his election, as well as express his desire to strengthen relations.

India’s determination to resolve its outstanding disputes with Nepal is also motivated by the significant inroads it’s regional rival China has made into Nepal. Nepal plays an important role in India’s goal to counter China’s ‘String of Pearls’, a network of ports and naval bases intended to reduce India’s naval footprint in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). As for Nepal, it is important to keep its options in the neighbourhood open and to avoid the possibility of falling into a debt trap because of its projects with China.

A glance at China and Nepal

Oli’s confidence in standing up to India could have possibly emanated from China’s support for his leadership. Seeking to prop up a Maoist-Communist nation state in the neighbourhood, the Chinese even went to the extent of providing disaster management assistance to the leader once he lost majority in the parliament. Chinese Ambassador to Nepal, Hou Yanqi is said to have met Puspa Kumar Dahal in an attempt to reverse his decision of withdrawing support to the CPN and saving Oli’s leadership.

China’s influence in Nepal is driven by the promise of returns from the Belt and Road Initiative, despite none of its projects in Nepal taking shape as of yet. China clearly sees Oli’s leadership as essential to sustaining that influence and his discharge may just prove the key element to hinge Nepal away from itself.

With Oli no longer the PM, the doors may just have opened for India to comfortably court Nepal once again, and use that as a counterweight to China’s growing influence in the South Asian subcontinent.

Looking Forward

For Deuba, a multilateral and balanced foreign policy seems the most pragmatic. To maintain diplomatic and economic relations with China and India would be the most strategically beneficial approach, at least immediately. His government has set tackling the COVID-19 virus as a priority, for which will help establish the trust of the USA, China, India and the EU.

Both China and India have recognised this as an opportunity to strengthen their ties in Nepal’s moment of crisis in dealing with COVID-19. Both the neighbouring rivals have sought to provide vaccines to Nepal, with a deal for 2 million doses of Covishield vaccines signed with India and 1.6 million doses of SinoPharm donated by China.

In conclusion, Deuba’s foreign policy will focus on a re-calibration of interests with its diplomatic neighbours, prioritising tackling COVID-19. However, this endeavour will require a balancing act, as any sudden departure from the earlier foreign policy would seem spurious. Nepal must not abandon its established relations with China and seek a reposturing that allows for it to strengthen its ties with India, and perhaps even resolve some of its outstanding issues. By balancing its expectations with the two countries Nepal can chart a future free of complete dependency on either. The country can then also look beyond its neighbourhood and seek stronger ties that suit its economic and strategic goals.

Deuba has a chance to create a stable central government in Nepal, one that can free itself from external influence if its administration is made watertight and factionalism minimised. Then perhaps he may fulfil his tilt towards India, while also reaping the potential benefits from its closeness with China, especially the Belt and Road Initiative.

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