Nepal triggers Himalayan avalanche
By M K Bhadrakumar
The South Asian political landscape will never be the same again following the
Maoist victory march in Nepal's elections to a new 601-seat constituent
Assembly last Thursday. It may take several days before the election results
are fully known, but available trends indicate that the Communist Party of
Nepal (Maoist) is surging ahead. By Monday, the Maoists had secured 89 of the
total declared 162 seats for which results were declared.
The established mainstream parties, such as the Nepali Congress and Communist
Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist) are trailing far behind. The royalists, who
rooted for the perpetuation of the 240-year-old Hindu monarchy, have been
routed. A distinct possibility
arises that the Maoists will secure a simple majority and lead the next
government - an extraordinary feat for the former rebels who gave up a
decade-long armed struggle and took to the democratic path hardly two years
The impact is bound to be far-reaching on Nepal's political economy, South
Asia's political landscape and the geopolitics of the region. Thursday's
elections are primarily aimed at forming a constituent assembly to determine
the contours of Nepal's political system. The results signify that the country
is irrevocably set on the path of republicanism. Even the limited role of a
constitutional monarchy seems out of the question.
The results signify pervasive popular disenchantment with the established
political parties. Most expert commentators have to explain their lapse in not
foreseeing such an outburst of popular opinion. Clearly, the people have voted
for change. The groundswell of support for Maoists is fairly widespread,
cutting across regions. Claiming victory, Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal
(popularly called Prachanda) said his party's victory was a mandate for lasting
peace, implementation of the democratic republic and rapid economic
development. He frontally addressed the intriguing question: "People are
asking, 'What is this Maoist party?' And the international community is asking,
'What will happen after the Maoists win?' All these fears are unnecessary."
Prachanda held out the assurance that his party's agenda would be to work with
other political parties during the transition period. "We will establish
greater national unity with all political parties after the election," he
added. The Maoists received commendation from an unexpected quarter when former
US president Jimmy Carter, who led a team of foreign observers, stated at a
press conference in Kathmandu on Saturday his conviction that the former rebels
were every bit wedded to the democratic path.
The poorest country in South Asia has suddenly catapulted itself to the
vanguard of democratic reform and political transformation in the region.
India, which basks in the glory of its democratic way of life, at once looks a
little bit archaic and tired in comparison. After 60 years of uninterrupted
democratic pluralism, vast sections of Indian society are yet to realize the
potentials of political empowerment. The Nepalese people have come from behind
and overtaken the Indians in expanding the frontiers of "bourgeois" politics.
Politics in India still meander through alleys of caste and parochialism and
eddies of religious obscurantism and Hindu nationalism. The upper-caste Hindu
elites in Nepal used to share social kinships with the Indian political elites.
The Maoists have upturned Nepal's entrenched caste politics. The Indian
electorate is yet to explore in full measure ideology-based secular political
empowerment, which is the bedrock of democratic self-rule. Unsurprisingly,
India's main opposition party, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, which
thrives on Hindu fundamentalism, has been stunned into silence. It feels let
down that a country that it dearly cherished as the world's only "Hindu
kingdom" has taken to secular democracy with such panache.
The Maoist government will proceed to dismantle the pillars of Nepal's feudal
structure and will take recourse to radical economic and political reforms
based on distributive justice and egalitarian principles. That is bound to
catch the attention of impoverished Indians in the sub-Himalayan belt sooner or
later. The Indian states (provinces) bordering Nepal are notorious for their
The Maoist victory in Nepal poses a challenge to the Indian establishment as
well. Delhi is distinctly lukewarm about the prospect of an outright Maoist
victory. The Indian establishment traditionally works with the Nepali Congress.
Some elements within the establishment view with disquiet the prospect of the
Maoists galvanizing revolutionary movements within India. Conceivably, Delhi
didn't anticipate a tidal wave of popular will favoring the Maoists in Nepal.
All the same, Delhi allowed the democratic process in Nepal to take its course.
It could not but take a keen interest in Nepalese politics and a completely
"hands-off" approach was unrealistic to expect, but the real question was of
not being intrusive to the point of interfering in Nepal's internal affairs. In
the event, Delhi kept cool and maintained a delicate balance - watching
developments closely while keeping a decent distance and reserving options to
adapt to circumstances. However, a period of adjustment to the new political
realities in Kathmandu becomes necessary and a thorough revamping of policy
directions is inevitable. Nepal is far too important a neighbor for India. Its
rapidly growing relations with China add to Delhi's policy calculus.
China's policy towards Nepal is not ideology driven insofar as Beijing kept in
view the imperatives of inter-state relations almost until the end of King
Gyanendra's direct rule. But Beijing swiftly adapted to the emergent democratic
forces in Nepal with great pragmatism and forged working relations with all
political parties, including the Maoists. China's interest in Nepal has
increased almost exponentially. The overarching geopolitical reality is that
the United States has become hyperactive in Nepalese politics. The developments
in Tibet have added a further dimension. Tibetan activists in Nepal have been
Much depends on Prachanda's priorities. The Maoist leader has time and again
shown he is not a dogmatist wedded to textbook Marxism and will give primacy to
the implementation of his reform agenda. He has proved to be a brilliant
tactician. He will tap into all available goodwill in Delhi and Beijing to the
extent that his agenda of Nepal's rapid economic development benefits.
In his first post-election comments, Prachanda said Nepal will develop "new
relations" with the Indian leadership. He stressed the close cultural and
historical links between the two countries and pointed out it is "quite
important" to have good neighborly relations with India. "A good understanding
with Delhi can create a new basis of unity with India," he said.
But he clarified that Nepal will maintain equidistance between India and China
in political terms. Beijing is certain to respond to him, given the criticality
of Nepal to Tibet's security and stability. If China's Central Asia policy is
anything to go by, it will put big money on the table in Nepal in the coming
period so as to keep at bay the three "evils" - terrorism, religious extremism
Besides, Nepal is resource-rich. There are any number of areas such as
development of infrastructure, hydroelectric power or the manufacturing
industry, where Nepal offers attractive business opportunities for enterprising
Chinese firms. Nepal can also be a gateway to the Indian market.
The advent of the Maoists to power in Kathmandu, therefore, confronts Delhi
with a creative challenge. The old days are gone when Delhi could take a
complacent view that come what may, Kathmandu would remain wedded to
cultivating Indian goodwill. The need arises now for Delhi to be proactive,
efficient and competitive. China's "soft power" in Nepal is already very
considerable, while Nepal is no exception to the latent "anti-Indianism" common
to India's neighboring countries.
Any Indian assumption that Nepal is its security backyard or that it should be
within India's "sphere of influence" will be untenable. If Delhi resorts to
pressure tactics, sensing that the Maoists have a long way to go to consolidate
their grip on political power, it might prove counterproductive.
On the other hand, the lengthening shadow of Chinese influence in Nepal should
act as a spur goading India into creative diplomacy. Having said that, India is
still left with vast leverage over Nepal spread over several inter-locking
planes - geography, culture and common ethos, shared history, economic and
social linkages, etc - and there is no real need to panic.
Almost certainly, the Maoists will want to jettison the 1950 treaty of peace
and friendship with India, which they consistently viewed as an unequal
framework. Equally, Delhi is conscious of the treaty's growing irrelevance,
even though the treaty provides significant trade and transit advantages to
landlocked Nepal and the Maoists, once in power, may come to better appreciate
that. No doubt, the renegotiation of the treaty will bring to the fore the new
impulses of the three-way equations involving India, Nepal and China.
Nepal has proved to be an unhappy experience for the United States and India in
their newfound interest to coordinate and harmonize their regional policies.
While India managed to keep its options open in a developing situation, the US
policy finds itself in a cul-de-sac. It was predicated on the naive belief that
Nepal could be made a geopolitical pressure point on China's soft underbelly.
Nepal becomes the latest link in the chain of the George W Bush
administration's foreign policy misadventures. The Maoists of Nepal still
figure in the US State Department's list of terrorist organizations.
But Prachanda may offer Washington an exit strategy without loss of face.
Responding to the media on Sunday, he said, "Yesterday, I had a very serious
discussion with former US president Jimmy Carter, and I raised this question
[of Washington regarding the Maoists as terrorists] ... It seems ridiculous to
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service
for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan
(1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).