Of elections in neighbouring Nepal

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Of elections in neighbouring Nepal

The Nepali voter is wise — s/he brought the Maoists crashing down in the second Constituent Assembly election. This time too s/he can spring a surprise

Barely three days are left for the historic simultaneous first phase of Parliamentary and Provincial post-Constitution election in Nepal but there has hardly been a word in the Indian media. These elections are also being regarded as a test of competing influence in Nepal between China and India. The contest is between the communist parties in a Left alliance — KP Oli-led United Marxist Leninist (UML), Prachanda Maoists and smaller Left parties and the Democratic Alliance — Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba-led Nepali Congress, Rashtriya Prajatantra Parties and Nepal Loktantrik Forum, which has merged with the Nepali Congress (NC). The Madhesi Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP) and the Federal Socialist Forum, in alliance are supporting the Democratic Alliance.

The Left alliance was curiously born when Prachanda was part of the first ever Right-Left coalition Government during the festive Dussehra season, taking everyone by surprise. Trust Prachanda to switch sides after his top leaders had urged Indian agencies and emissaries to help the faction-ridden Maoist party to re-group and rise above the UML for Maoist support for New Delhi.

Prachanda’s respect for India came about the hard way when he was first unseated as Prime Minister in 2008 and then prevented from returning to office even in a Left coalition with UML in which undivided Maoists were the senior partner and leagues ahead in seat tally of the NC and UML combined. An out in the cold, Prachanda converted from being a China fan to ‘realising that India was the more influential country in the game of equi-distance’.

Last year, as head of a depleted swing party, he was persuaded to ditch the Oli-led coalition and join NC as Prime Minister in a new Government. He kept on hold, many of the agreements his predecessor Oli had signed with China following the infamous and avoidable blockade of 2015. Prachanda’s flips and flops — guided by the instinct to remain in power to avert the process of accountability after the insurgency — are no surprise but a disappointment for India. Many UML cadres and supporters have opposed the Left alliance as they were subjected to Maoist brutality during the insurgency.

In mid-October, when I was in the hill areas of Nepal, exploring the likely outcome of elections, almost everyone I spoke to gave the benefit of advantage to the Left alliance; simply overawed by the picture of five former Prime Ministers, hands clasped — KP Oli, Madhav Kumar Nepal, Jhala Nath Khanal, Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai — coupled with the results of the countrywide local Government elections held after two decades in which the UML were clear winners followed by NC and the Maoists.

With most of the media with the Left alliance, China with its deep pockets in tow and the halo of a Rashtra Nayak and Desh Bhakt (nationalist and patriot) built around Oli, who had defied India during the blockade, everything seemed to be going the Left way. Backing the Left wave, the web portal setoparty.com did its poll calculation after the formation of the Left alliance by extrapolating the figures won in the local elections (of 35,041 posts, UML: 14,098; NC: 11,458; and Maoists: 5,041) for federal and provincial election results. Local elections were held before the formation of the Left alliance when NC and Maoists were tied in seat adjustments which failed to click. In October, setoparty.com had forecast the Left alliance winning a simple majority in federal elections and capturing six (except No. 2 province) out of seven provinces.

The Democratic alliance has since gathered steam and is catching up in most hill areas and is ahead along with RJP and SFS of the Left alliance in the Terai. Now Deuba is being hailed by his supporters for standing up to China by cancelling the 1,200 MW Budhi Gandaki hydro project that Prachanda had awarded to the Chinese firm Gejuwa. NC is lionising Deuba as ‘Shere’ (tiger) after energy minister Kamal Thapa cited lack of transparency for ending the deal. Promptly Oli said he would restore the project to Gejuwa if returned to power.

Unprecedented violence has accompanied election rallies. More than a dozen bomb attacks consisting of IEDs and pressure cooker devices have been launched across Nepal targeting mostly Maoist candidates but not sparing NC either by the breakaway faction of Maoist-CPN-led Biplav Netra Bikram Chand. Till November 20, five persons were killed and 25 wounded. While the US has called for peaceful elections, the Nepal Army has launched land and aerial patrols. The focus of the election is on development, not any more, the politics of regime survival.

Oli has promised a per capita income of $5,000 by 2027 and electric trains whereas Deuba has pledged to make Nepal a prosperous country in a decade and provide 500 km of railways. Federal Socialist Forum’s Khem Jung Gurung, an Indian Army veteran contesting a federal seat from Lamjung, is telling the electorate that if Left alliance wins, it will stop recruitment to the Indian Army, commandeer their land as the Maoists did during the insurgency and run a totalitarian state. New parties have caught the fancy of the voters, especially Bibeksheel Party which has promised corruption free good governance. Another new in the election is the use of social media — internet, Twitter and Facebook.

The Left alliance backed by China has said it will rule Nepal for the next 40 to 50 years. If the Maoists get it right, they will have much to celebrate for being the flagbearers of new Nepal — a federal, secular democratic republic. Their return to power, riding on the back of the UML will be a stinging irony. NC’s rising youth leader Gagan Thapa observed in an interview to Himal magazine that UML will be forced to shift from Centre to Left because of party unity with Maoists and will condone Maoist excesses during the insurgency. This will raise the hackles of the European Union which has sent more than 100 observers, some of whom would have spent two months till the second phase of elections on December 7.

It is always hazardous to stick one’s neck out about election results. Between, the setoparty.com prediction about a clear victory for the Left alliance, democratic forces have narrowed the gap considerably. With the new mixed electoral system — 165 first part the post and 110 proportional representation — we could end up with no clear winner in the federal election. In the provincial elections, the Left alliance will have an edge. But the Nepali voter is wise — s/he brought the Maoists crashing down in the second Constituent Assembly election. This time too, s/he can spring a surprise.

(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the revamped Integrated Defence Staff)

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