After a year of elections, Nepal moves closer to China

But how sustainable is Nepal’s path towards the Beijing Consensus?

Nepal elections
Nepal has had local, provincial and legislative elections in 2017 [Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar]

It has been a year of elections in Nepal. On January 31, then Foreign Minister Prakash Sharan Mahat promised to a clutch of Kathmandu-based envoys that the country would hold all three levels of elections – local, provincial and parliamentary – within the year.

In just concluded polls, Mahat himself lost and his Nepali Congress party performed miserably, but the government succeeded in delivering upon its promise to the international community.

The three-phased polls were first held to elect local government officials. They were soon followed by two-phased elections for provincial assemblies and the lower house of the parliament.

Phased elections engaged the entire government machinery and over 200,000 security personnel had to be employed in the exercise. It was the most expensive elections in the history of the country.

As a result, for the better part of the year, the government did nothing to ameliorate the suffering of the people. Governance stagnated, corruption escalated, development projects were almost on hold and survivors of the Gorkha earthquake continued to languish in utter neglect, as the state prioritised polls over everything else. 

Results have been predictable for a nation put consistently in every list of extremely fragile and underdeveloped countries of the world. The Left Alliance swept the polls at all levels of the government.

Northward ho!

Composed of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist, UML) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), the Left Alliance is a political marriage of convenience. It hasn’t come up with a workable agenda and is relying solely on illusive slogans of development and prosperity.

Presumptive prime minister and UML chieftain Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli began his political career as a Maoist in the early 1970s in Jhapa across the border with India’s West Bengal state. Those were the days of slogans like “China’s Chairman is Our Chairman and China’s Path is Our Path” rending the air in West Bengal. But Oli embraced revisionism early on and by 1990s he had begun to reclaim hyper-nationalist rhetoric. He is known better for his demagoguery than democratic convictions. 

China's Chairman and China's Path are indeed shared ideals of demagogues and populists of developing countries


The Maoist Supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda has turned out to be a rank populist with fungible beliefs. As late as February 2000, he was exclaiming belligerently, “I hate revisionism. I seriously hate revisionism. I never compromise with revisionism. I fought and fought again with revisionism.” It seems he did so only to join revisionists at a time and place of his choosing.

In a roundabout way, the Maoist motto of the 1970s has turned out to be true – China’s Chairman and China’s Path are indeed shared ideals of demagogues and populists of developing countries. It just so happens that the Chairman now is Xi Jinping and the path is called the Beijing Consensus – or China’s development model.

Along with Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Nepal rushed to join One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, which aims to invest in infrastructural projects as a part of President Xi’s peripheral diplomacy doctrine with China at its centre. The lapsed Maoist duo of Oli and Prachand expects to attract enough Chinese money to build trans-Himalayan railways, hydroelectric projects modelled after the Three Gorges dam and make the entire economy of Nepal look northwards for sustenance.

Unlike the post-war Marshall Plan for Europe, the OBOR scheme is premised on trade rather than aid and even though loans are lent at concessional rates, they have to be repaid as Sri Lanka discovered when it had to cede control of the Hambantota port to the Chinese on a 99-year lease. Loans require financial feasibility, political stability and sovereign guarantees.

Apart from hydroelectric potential, in itself a high-risk enterprise in a chronically earthquake-prone zone, Nepal has little-proven resource of exportable quantity and quality. With the statute contested in the Madhesh plains, where the electorate has largely rejected the Left Alliance and endorsed the agenda of constitutional amendments, political stability may turn out to be illusory.

Over one-third of the Nepalese economy is based on remittances from unskilled and low-skilled labourers sweating out in volatile countries. Sovereign guarantees of an externally dependent economy may not have anything more than geopolitical significance. That is likely to put a spanner in the grandiose plans of the Left Alliance if India decides to protect its traditional sphere of influence.

Powerful southerlies

Monarchists in the early 1960s came up with the idea of equidistance from Beijing and New Delhi. However, the credit for reviving the concept vociferously goes to Maoist hardliner C P Gajurel. There is one major problem with the proposition: Equidistance from Beijing and New Delhi is geographically incorrect, culturally incompatible, economically untenable, politically undesirable, and as the last Nepalese King Gyanendra discovered to his chagrin, diplomatically disastrous.

Unless the Chinese decide to do to Nepal what the Soviets did for Cuba or the Americans for West Germany during the Cold War, Indian ports will continue to be the lifeline of the Nepalese economy. Religious, cultural, linguistic and social affinities between India and Nepal mean that a large number of poor Nepalese look towards India for permanent or seasonal employment. New Delhi is unlikely to loosen its grip in its backyard without some resistance.

The internal flashpoints too lie in the southern flatlands. The Madhesh plains have emerged as a significant factor in Nepalese politics. With issues of citizenship, inclusion, representation, autonomy, dignity and language remaining unaddressed, polls have merely postponed a political confrontation.

The much-vaunted Peace Process that brought Maoists into mainstream politics in 2006 is also far from complete. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission hasn’t yet completed its task of bringing perpetrators and victims of the decade-long armed conflict together. The Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons has not been able to ascertain the whereabouts of victims or identify the guilty. Without a sense of closure, wounds of the armed conflict would continue to fester.

For now, polls are over and results are out, but the controversial constitution is yet to survive its first test of utility. The Nepali Congress claims that elections for the Upper House need to be completed before a new government can be formed. The Left Alliance is set against ordinances necessary to constitute the upper chamber of the Federal Parliament. The president is holding consultations as constitutional confusion reigns supreme.

Like Madheshis, other marginalised groups such as Muslims, indigenous Janjati groups and the Dalits must have realised from the outcome of these polls that no matter who fights the election, the Permanent Establishment of Nepal (PEON) – consisting of the aristocracy, the army brass, the bureaucratic bosses, the business oligarchs and the Hindu preachers that have controlled the reins of government since its founding in the late eighteenth century – always wins in the end. Apart from geopolitical shift northwards, nothing much is going to change in the country.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.