Following intervention by the Supreme Court in February, Nepal is once again headed by a non-communist Prime Minister. It is a golden opportunity for India to make up for lost ground & strengthen ties with its Himalayan neighbor.
Nepal’s protracted political instability received a fresh twist last Sunday when Nepali Congress President—75-year-old Sher Bahadur Deuba, comfortably won the trust vote in the reinstated lower house of representatives, averting a general election in the Himalayan nation.
In December last year the country was plunged into fresh political crisis after President Bidhya Devi Bhandari dissolved the house and announced fresh elections on April 30 and May 10 at the behest of the then Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli. Oli was involved in a tussle for power within the Nepal Communist Party (NCP). In February however, the apex court, in a setback to Oli, reinstated the dissolved House of Representatives.
Deuba’s failure to win the trust vote would have led to dissolution of the house and snap polls within six months but his victory paves the way for him to remain in office for at least a year and a half until fresh parliamentary elections are held. Seen as a centrist leader, Deuba’s elevation to the top post is positive for India.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quick to congratulate Deuba. In a tweet Modi said, "Congratulations Prime Minister @DeubaSherbdr and best wishes for a successful tenure. I look forward to working with you to further enhance our unique partnership in all sectors and strengthen our deep-rooted people-to-people ties."
In his response, Deuba was effusive in his thanks to Modi and expressed his desire to work closely to strengthen the bilateral ties between the two neighbouring countries.
"Thank you very much, Prime Minister @narendramodi Ji, for your congratulatory note. I look forward to closely working with you to strengthen the relationship between our two countries and people," Deuba tweeted late on Sunday night itself.
A traditional rock solid ally, Indo-Nepalese relations have hit a trough in recent times coinciding with China seeking to exert its influence through the communist parties. Relations between the two countries had soured in the first week of May 2020 when India’s defence minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated a road link via Lipulekh to Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet in China. The issue had been festering ever since November of 2019 when India published a map that said Kalapani was part of its territory. Nepal had responded to the inauguration of the road with its own map that depicts Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura as its territories. Unanimously endorsed by Nepal’s upper house of parliament it took India by surprise.
That was only the recent flashpoint. Relations first got strained after Nepal alleged India of an undeclared blockade in 2015. The two countries that generally have a porous and free-flowing border, now for the first time ever, have a territorial dispute on their hands. They can be attributed to the rise of the communist parties--backed by China, in Nepal’s polity. India has in contrast stayed firm to its hands off policy trusting Nepal to sort its own issues.
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Even before the fresh round of political instability, India had started the process of rebuilding bridges through vaccine diplomacy. Earlier this year India gifted one million Covishield vaccines to Nepal, which was part of its plans to provide upto 10 million doses of both Covishield and Covaxin to friendly countries. Even more recently, it supplied 200 MT of liquid oxygen to Bangladesh and another 100 MT to Indonesia. It is likely to do the same to Nepal, which is also fighting an intense battle against the virus, in days to come.
Nevertheless, the fissures in the communist framework and return of the Congress gives India a golden chance to iron out some of the differences that have cropped up.
It is already making China nervous. The country’s mouthpiece Global Times recently wrote an article where it said the Nepali Congress is likely to move in a favorable direction towards India. Deuba’s track record, however, does not inspire confidence. He has previously served as Prime Minister on four occasions from 1995 to 1997, 2001 to 2002, 2004 to 2005 and from 2017 to 2018, lasting no more than 2 years at the maximum. This time around too, he will be incharge for less than that.
The window of opportunity is small, and India needs to make the most of it.