Nepal is an important neighbor of India and holds special significance in its foreign policy due to centuries-old geographic, historical, cultural, and economic ties. Not only do the two countries have an open border and free movement of people, but they also have close bonds through marriages and familial relations, also sometimes referred to as Roti-Beti ka Rishta. The India-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1950 is the foundation of the special ties. So, whenever there is an election in the neighborhood, it becomes of strategic importance for India to look into the country’s domestic politics and its results to maintain good relations with the government. The article will highlight how recent Nepal elections will set the future of India-Nepal relations.
The transition from monarchy to democracy
Nepal was ruled by a succession of hereditary rulers for most of its history. In Nepal, numerous governments have been formed, and many have failed. Since the restoration of democracy in 1990, there have been three elections: in 1991, 1996, and 1999. Nepal has always desired to transition from a monarchy to a democratic government and change its founding principles to conduct a new society. Nepal had seen several popular democratic movements, and on 28 May 2008, the newly elected Constituent Assembly said that Nepal was now a federal democratic republic. It got rid of the monarchy, which had been in place for 240 years. Nepal today has a president as head of state and a prime minister heading the government. It has experienced two systems: monarchy (from the country’s unification in 1768 until 2006) and republican democracy (from 2007 to the present).
Election fever in 2022
On Sunday, Nov 20, approximately 18m eligible voters cast their ballots in Nepal to elect new federal and provincial legislatures, the country’s second election since the constitution was promulgated in 2015. The 165 members of the 275-member federal House of Representative will be elected through the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, with the remaining 110 seats filled using a proportional representation system (PR). A total of 330 seats in the seven provincial houses will be decided directly, with proportional representation filling the remaining 220 seats. In the past Nepal’s leaders had made collective promises of ‘stable government, democratic consolidation, economic prosperity, and corruption-free governance’. but none of them could keep their promises, especially for India, which plays a decisive role in Nepal’s internal politics. The current government, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba of Nepali Congress (NC), has deep strategic relations with India and shares a common good. But, in the past, under the leadership of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) of former Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, the ties between the two countries became fractious.
Oli hopes to return to power after the election and he has promised to bring Kalapani, Lipulekh, and Limpiadhura, a disputed territory between Nepal and India, under Nepal’s control. The border issue has emerged as a major bone of contention between Nepal and India.
India, China and the US nexus
China and India aren’t the only countries waiting with bated breath for the results of Nepal’s elections. In its fierce competition with China in the region, the US cares just as much about who comes out on top. To fight against China’s Belt and Road Initiative, worth billions of dollars, and also in the Indo-Pacific. China, meanwhile, has been working to become a significant player in Nepal since 2006. It is doing so by increasing its investments in many different areas. So China is looking for a government in Kathmandu that is cooperative and willing to work for its interests. Beijing’s increasingly close ties with Kathmandu has annoyed New Delhi no end. Tensions between India and Nepal grew with the Oli government signing of a trade and transit treaty with China in 2016. President Xi Jinping visited Nepal in Oct 2019.
All these major activities have a strategic role in forming future relations between India and Nepal.
Challenges for India
Internal security is a big issue for India. The border between India and Nepal is almost open and only lightly policed, which terrorist and insurgent groups from the North Eastern part of India use to their advantage by, for example, sending trained cadres and fake Indian currency. India’s reputation for taking too long to finish projects has made the trust gap between India and Nepal grow over time. Nepal has had a long history of political instability, including a 10-year violent insurgency, which has hurt the country’s growth and economy. Some Nepali ethnic groups don’t like India because they think that it meddles too much in Nepal’s internal affairs. Nepal and China have diplomatic ties, and the latter’s influence in Nepal is growing. It means that India has less power in Nepal than it used to. So, to overcome China’s growing influence, India will need to start narrowing the communication gap with Nepal, as well as give momentum to stalled projects.
Elections in Nepal may have significant geopolitical implications for India and other neighboring nations. No matter which political party comes to power. India should provide an alternative narrative for India-Nepal relations, considering the long-standing people-to-people ties and cultural connection between the two nations. It should concentrate on realizing the unrealized potential of hydropower cooperation, mainly due to divergent perceptions. It should maintain its policy of non-interference in Nepal’s internal affairs. India cannot afford to overlook the need for a stable and secure Nepal, given its immense strategic significance. Misuse of an open border by internal and external forces affects both countries, and both are responsible for border management and regulation. All of these significant challenges and their resolutions will propel India-Nepal relations to new heights.
The author is the Director of Research in the Indo-Pacific Consortium at Raisina House, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal