Since the November elections, neither contender had the votes to form an absolute government. But weeks of behind-the-scenes intrigue culminated on Sunday night, when Prachanda, long seen as a potential kingmaker, emerged victorious with the support of Oli, his rival-turned-comrade.
After waging a guerrilla insurgency beginning in 1996 — a conflict that left more than 17,000 dead and allegations of war crimes by government forces and rebels — Prachanda, whose nom de guerre means “the fierce,” signed an agreement to peace in 2006 and ushered the Maoists into the political mainstream. He previously served as prime minister in 2008 and 2016, both terms lasting less than a year.
While Nepal has seen a merry-go-round of 13 prime ministers in 16 years, with few leaders offering dramatically new proposals to lift the impoverished economy, this election has revived a geopolitical question with greater implications in an era of great power rivalries: Nepal, strategically perched in the Himalayas, lean toward China, or toward India and its ever-closer partner, the United States?
“China can be very excited” about the communist parties of Nepal coming together to seize power, said Lok Raj Baral, former chairman of the think tank of the Center for Contemporary Nepal Studies in Kathmandu and former ambassador to India. “But these parties also have their own limitations, and Nepal is dependent on India, even the West. These parties may also face each other tomorrow. It is impossible to predict anything in this country.”
In Nepalese politics, Baral added, “China is active these days, as are the Indians and the Americans.”
Following the announcement of Prachanda’s selection, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Chinese embassy in Nepal tweeted their congratulations. The US Embassy in Kathmandu issued a similar congratulatory statement, saying the United States is “proud to have had strong and longstanding ties with Nepal” and will continue to help the country promote “sustainable economic growth and strengthening democracy and human rights”.
Key figures from all three major countries have visited Nepal in recent months. Modi arrived at the Buddha’s birthplace, the Nepalese town of Lumbini, in May. Donald Lu, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, visited Nepal in July. And Li Zhanshu, the third-highest-ranking official in the Chinese Communist Party, visited in September.
Building on the policies of successive US administrations, the Biden White House has placed an emphasis on strengthening relations with governments across South Asia to counter the growing influence of China. Under pressure from the State Department in February, Deuba’s government ratified a $500 million infrastructure deal he had signed five years earlier with the US Millennium Challenge Corporation, a foreign aid agency established under President George W. .bush.
But the deal was criticized by Nepal’s Maoists and ridiculed by the Chinese Foreign Ministry because Nepal received a poisoned “Pandora’s box” from Washington, while the State Department hit back at Beijing for meddling in their bilateral affairs with the Himalayan nation.
“The Americans were openly saying that the Chinese are instigating Nepal to oppose [the infrastructure deal] and the Chinese were saying that the Americans are persuading Nepal to act against China,” said Ranjit Rae, a former Indian ambassador to Kathmandu. “This kind of public dispute was something new. It never happened before in Nepal.”
This summer, domestic political furor over Nepal’s ties to the United States forced Deuba and the Nepal army chief to deny that the army had signed a cooperative agreement with the US National Guard that would pave the way for a partnership. deeper military.
The firestorm prompted Deuba to cancel a trip to Washington and to the US embassy to issue a forceful statement saying the US is “not pushing” Nepal to sign any deal, nor “seeking a military alliance.” ” with Nepali.
Nepal’s foreign alignments looked markedly different during the tenure of Deuba’s predecessor, Oli, who served as prime minister from 2018 to 2021. He fought with India over territorial disputes, bitterly accused New Delhi of economic blackmail and claimed that the forces Indians were trying to overthrow him. Oli sought investment from China, including projects under the Belt and Road Initiative that have mostly failed to materialize.
Meanwhile, India has tightened the economic and diplomatic screws on the landlocked nation of some 30 million people, which has few manufacturing and agricultural exports but excess hydroelectric potential. in a interview This month with the Hindu, an Indian newspaper, Kul Man Ghising, a senior Nepalese energy official, said that India had blocked 800 megawatts of potential hydroelectric power exports from Nepal simply because they were generated from dams built in China.
In August, Nepal awarded $2.4 billion worth of hydroelectric projects to India, nearly four years after China Three Gorges Corp. pulled out of the projects in what Deuba saw as an attempt to mend relations with India.
Sushant Singh, a think tank member at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, said the election of any one leader will not solve Nepal’s domestic or foreign policy challenges any time soon.
“The real problem is that it is very difficult for Nepal to strike a balance between China and India,” Singh said. “As long as it is a divided politics and a multi-party coalition, all foreign countries have possibilities to meddle.”