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Return of communists in Nepal is good news for China

China, India and the US are vying for influence as former guerrilla leader Prachanda is back at the helm
Nepal's former guerrilla leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal (second from left), better known by his nom de guerre Prachanda, was appointed as prime minister of the Himalayan nation for the third time on Dec. 25, 2022, after his Maoist party cobbled together a coalition following elections in November
Nepal's former guerrilla leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal (second from left), better known by his nom de guerre Prachanda, was appointed as prime minister of the Himalayan nation for the third time on Dec. 25, 2022, after his Maoist party cobbled together a coalition following elections in November. (Photo: Dipesh Shrestha / AFP)
Published: January 11, 2023 11:43 AM GMT
Updated: January 11, 2023 11:51 AM GMT

As Maoists and Communists yet again become major players in Nepal, the Chinese element is poised to dominate the overall geo-politic opus of South Asia.

Democracy in Nepal was largely brought about and led by the bespectacled Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal 17 years ago.

However, when the 68-year-old former Marxist guerilla leader took up the country’s top job on Dec. 26 last year, his detractors once again called him the "ultimate opportunist.”

Of course, they had enough reasons to call him so.

According to his critics, he is self-centered and clever and can ditch his closest aides and allies at the drop of a hat if it benefits him. Apparently, Dahal has a long history of jumping ship to partner with ruling parties.

Dahal came to the helm of affairs with 32 seats in the Himalayan nation’s 275-member Pratinidhi Sabha (House of Representatives) following the elections.

The November general election failed to produce a clear winner, although the Nepali Congress emerged as the single largest outfit.

To become prime minister of the 29.1 million people, the former Maoist guerilla severed his ties with the five-party alliance, led by the Nepali Congress, to whose government his Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) was a partner.

Dahal then joined former premier K. P. Sharma Oli and his Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist). It resulted in the revival of a partnership between Nepal’s two biggest communist parties. Oli’s party has 78 parliamentary seats in the parliament.

Dahal also gained the backing of seven other smaller parties and three independent lawmakers and gained the support of 169 members to form a government led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) in Nepal.

This is the third time Dahal has become Nepal’s prime minister.

Hailing from a poor farming family, Dahal’s original name was Chhabi Lal while at school. The former student of agriculture changed to Pushpa Kamal Dahal. During the height of the Maoist insurgency, he embraced the name Prachanda (the 'fierce' one).

He was a school teacher and also had a stint with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Nepal, but turned into a vocal critic of US imperialism in Asia and did not hide his antipathy towards Western capitalist imperialism when he was waging a clandestine war against the Hindu monarchy that ruled the Himalayan Kingdom for more than 237 years.

Despite his political maneuverings to seek power for himself at any cost, it was Dahal who played a vital role in bringing Nepal to the path of democracy with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in November 2006.

He launched the Maoist insurgency in the country between 1996 and 2006 which toppled the ruling monarchy and reportedly claimed more than 17,000 lives.

With his military leadership and oratory skills, Dahal could transform the Maoist party from being a poorly armed rag-tag outfit into one of South Asia's most feared rebel groups during the reign of the last monarch, King Gyanendra.

Dahal is becoming the prime minister of Nepal when three superpowers – China, India and the United States – are vying for influence in Nepal.

India, the world's fifth-largest economy with a gross domestic product (GPD) of US$3.5 trillion, would have preferred a government in Nepal headed by the previous Nepali Congress. The coming together of Nepal’s two largest communist factions is seen as a victory for China, the world’s second-largest economy with a GDP amounting to more than US$17.74 trillion.

There are unconfirmed reports saying China was instrumental in unifying the two communist parties in the 2018-2021 period.

No wonder, from 2018-2021, China made strategic inroads into Nepal and it is alleged that Kathmandu prioritized Chinese interests at India’s expense.

Dahal personally prefers close ties with the Chinese Communist Party. When he became prime minister for the first time in 2008, he visited China first instead of India, breaking away from years of established foreign policy tradition in Nepal.

As the government headed by the Maoist leader is established after proving a majority, all major constitutional posts like the president and speaker will be occupied once again by Marxist-Maoists who will obviously be ideologically closer to China.

Soon after Dahal took over as the new prime minister, China dispatched a technical team to the capital Kathmandu to conduct the feasibility study of a proposed rail line linking Kathmandu with Shigatse in the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China, bordering India.

Dahal as the new prime minister also inaugurated the Pokhara Regional International Airport, built by China CAMC Engineering Company Limited, which Wang Xin, China’s acting envoy to Nepal, described as the flagship project of the China-Nepal cooperation within the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) framework– a cross-continental connectivity program started by China. 

Nepal’s closer ties with China are viewed with deep concern in India due to increased belligerence along the disputed boundary between the two nuclear nations.

Moreover, big-ticket infrastructure projects financed by China are aimed at helping Nepal to lessen its reliance on Indian land routes for trade and business purposes.

At the same time, it will not be so easy for Dahal to keep India at a distance as New Delhi is still Nepal’s largest trade partner and the largest source of foreign investment. India also provides development assistance to Nepal.

Both India and Nepal are members of multiple multilateral forums such as BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal), BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), and SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation).

The latest entrant to woo Nepal and its $36.29 billion economy is the US.

As Dahal's coalition government may be attracted to China, he will have to do a balancing act to implement the controversial Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact, a US$500 million US grant to build power lines and roads.

The US grant, promised in 2014, divided Nepali politics for years until it was given the green signal through parliamentary ratification last February.

Dahal's CPN-Maoist Centre dropped its opposition and voted in its favor after it was clarified that the grant was neither a military nor security pact. The US aid package is seen as a setback for Chinese influence.

What affects India, China and Nepal, naturally will naturally have an impact on Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, as all these nations have delicate diplomatic and trade links with India and China.

The superpower rivalry has placed Nepal in a diplomatic minefield, but the "ultimate opportunist” will have enough firepower in his belly to keep the three nuclear players and economic powerhouses in his good books.

No wonder he still prefers to be called by his nom de guerre – Prachanda

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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