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Nepal slips toward anarchy as India and China seek Himalayan edge

Protests erupt over parliament dissolution, raising COVID and economic risks

Protesters affiliated with a faction of the ruling Nepal Communist Party demonstrate against the prime minister's dissolution of parliament in Kathmandu on Dec. 29.   © Reuters

KATHMANDU -- Nepalese Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli's sudden dissolution of parliament in mid-December has triggered nationwide protests and political chaos, pushing the country to the brink of anarchy while giving India and China potential opportunities to enhance their Himalayan influence.

Thousands marched in Kathmandu on Tuesday despite coronavirus restrictions -- continuing a series of protests organized by angry parties in recent days. Former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai declared last week that his party, the Janata Samajwadi Party or JSP, would "resist Oli's regressive move with an additional program of street struggle."

Bhattarai called the dissolution unconstitutional and urged the speaker to convene the legislature anyway.

Some leaders, however, have backed Oli's decision to close up shop and hold an election in April or May -- more than a year early.

Narayanman Bijukchhe, chairman of the Nepal Workers and Peasants Party and a former lawmaker, has credited the prime minister with saving the nation from disintegration. He argues Oli's decision was not only constitutional, but also averted a coup.

Oli and the Nepal Communist Party had presided over an unusually stable government since 2018. But the country's fragile democracy has been buffeted by rising Hindu nationalism and calls for the restoration of the monarchy. What tipped the balance was a power grab within the NCP itself: A party parliamentary meeting led by the faction of Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known as Prachanda, ousted Oli from his leadership post and named Prachanda as his replacement.

As the NCP hurtles toward a formal split, the Prachanda faction hopes the Election Commission will give their side official recognition, claiming they hold a majority.

Whatever happens, the two biggest powers in the region -- India and China -- will be watching closely and eyeing ways to capitalize.

Nepal's Prime Minster K.P. Sharma Oli, seen here at an International Labor Organization conference in 2019, insists his government has "performed historic tasks for strengthening national interests."   © Reuters

It is no secret that India is uncomfortable with the NCP. But while some Indian analysts may see the turmoil as a positive for New Delhi, politicians like Oli are likely to stoke anti-India sentiment in the runup to the next election. Indeed, Oli -- who still boasts a strong grassroots base -- is not shy about anti-India rhetoric and is quick to remind citizens that he has stood up to New Delhi over territory.

In a national address delivered on Dec. 21, the day after the dissolution, Oli said his government had "performed historic tasks for strengthening national interests."

"A new map has been published comprising Nepal's actual territory," he said, referring to a bold move earlier this year that India condemned. Oli's latest remark came after his government had only recently appeared inclined to mend fences.

China, for its part, has enjoyed relatively stable relations with the NCP administration. For Beijing, though, the priority in Nepal is a steady government -- communist or not -- as it aims to continue pushing Belt and Road projects and curbing Tibetan political activity in the country.

India and China, of course, are locked in their own Himalayan border dispute, which turned ugly in May and June when clashes left 20 Indian soldiers dead.

A third power to watch is the U.S. The incoming Joe Biden administration could send ripples through the region by supporting Tibetan causes. Officially, Nepal maintains a "one China" policy.

On Sunday, a high-level delegation led by Guo Yezhou, vice minister of the Chinese Communist Party's International Department, arrived in Nepal and met with key political leaders including Oli and Prachanda. Underscoring Beijing's aversion to uncertainty, the group advised against an NCP split and urged them to maintain political stability. The visitors expressed concern over security as well.

The Indian Foreign Ministry also sent a team to Kathmandu on Tuesday for "observation."

"Given the India-China standoff in the Ladakh Himalayas, New Delhi may not side immediately with an untested government or tolerate a power vacuum in Kathmandu," said Kallol Bhattacherjee, an Indian journalist. "Such a situation could deepen India's strategic disadvantage vis-a-vis China."

Meanwhile, with a Nepalese election on the horizon, a scramble to strike political deals is getting underway.

The next polls are most likely to result in a coalition government. Some expect Sher Bahadur Deuba's Nepali Congress party -- an NCP rival that has also organized protests against the dissolution -- to work with Oli and try to woo the JSP.

Surya Raj Acharya, an independent political analyst in Kathmandu, told Nikkei that Deuba's recent stance amid the parliament dissolution "reflects his eagerness for a possible coalition and power-grab mentality."

Any coalition would be at risk of breaking apart within a few years.

Protesters hold a torch rally against the parliament dissolution and plan for an early election in Kathmandu on Dec. 28.   © Reuters

For now, without a functioning parliament, and with no guarantee the election can be held within five months, Nepal faces the risk of political uncertainty disrupting the economy and efforts to obtain COVID-19 vaccines. The country of around 28 million has recorded about 259,000 infections, with over 1,800 deaths.

Much will depend on Nepal's Supreme Court and Election Commission. A total of 12 writ petitions against Oli's parliament dissolution have been filed with the court. All were heard by the chief justice, who has not given any verdict.

The decisions of the court and commission will determine not only the validity of Oli's move but also the future of the NCP. There is also a chance of parliament being reinstated and Oli facing no-confidence motion.

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