China is selling dreams for a price — greater influence over the Himalayan state

Among one of the many things that China’s growing influence over Nepal has done to its people is that it has created the chimera of a better life, something ordinary people should aspire to. This product called hope is sold from every street corner, but for a price — learn Chinese. Along the scenic road flanked by lofty mountain peaks that welcome tourists arriving at the Tribhuvan International Airport, it is impossible to miss the pamphlets at every road crossing, on the walls adjoining pavements and on electric poles, exhorting people to learn Chinese, never mind that the language is touted to be the world’s most difficult by linguists. The idea is to enable the young Nepalese generation to go abroad and study in Chinese universities on scholarships. A journalist based in Nepal’s capital city, Kathmandu, says that many a time Nepalese students attend Chinese universities, but the medium of instruction for them is Nepalese.

Ask people in Kathmandu if this should bother India, and the reply is terse: “You’d be a fool not to be worried.” In New Delhi, the news of a pre-poll alliance between the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) and the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre (CPN-MC) in October had evoked much anxiety. It marked the coming together of former Prime Ministers K.P. Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known as ‘Prachanda,’ and prompted newspaper editorials to unanimously point fingers at China and issue ominous warnings about an ‘aggressive’ Beijing.

In Nepal, however, the alliance received a mixed response. For some, it was a relief because it promised to reduce the number of parties in the small Himalayan nation. As a bookshop owner in Kathmandu’s Thamel area, Manoj, said, “It’s for the best. We have more politicians than required to represent the 29 million people living here. Too many cooks spoil the broth.” But the development was also viewed by many others with caution, especially because the Communists’ poll campaign relied heavily on attacking the country’s religious institutions. In a country where 90 percent people are Hindus, the campaign has drawn home the realisation that voting for Communists could endanger their religious identity and culture.

India’s paranoia
The moment one sets foot in the lobby of Shangri La Hotel, one knows that someone important has arrived. People seated in chairs and chit-chatting a while ago straighten up to shake hands with a man dressed in a black suit and a matching Nepali topi (cap). Dr Shekhar Koirala, a member of the ruling Nepali Congress (NC) and an MP from Morang district in east Nepal, is widely regarded as a man whose wisdom appeals to leaders cutting across party lines. In person, he is an old, frail-looking man with a patient visage that gives one the impression that one will be heard and understood. On being told about India’s reaction to the recently-formed Communist alliance, Dr Koirala looks amused. “If that is true, why didn’t India do something to stop it before it happened?” he asks, adjusting his spectacles on his wrinkled face with a wry smile.

Shekhar Koirala Photo Credit:

It was two months ago, before the alliance was announced, that one fine morning Prachanda had approached Dr Koirala in the Parliament and conveyed that he was being asked by the UML to form an alliance. The offer was lucrative — 40 percent of the total seats. The senior politician had then said that there was no way the NC would be able to offer those many seats to Prachanda and had also warned him that entering the alliance would destroy the identity that the NC had painstakingly built over a decade. Eventually, Prachanda and Oli came out in public to declare that they had set aside their differences and decided to join hands for the greater good of the country and to usher in an era of political stability in Nepal. The point Koirala is trying to make is that everyone knew the alliance was in the offing, including India, but chose not to act on it. “Now, it is insignificant if the alliance has been stitched together with Beijing’s help or not. What is important is that it has been done and has created a space for China to step in,” the senior leader warns.

the fact that the UML and MC have been waging an open war against religious institutions in Nepal has made the Hindu community wary of them

Indo-Nepal ties

China is taking advantage of Nepal’s ambivalence towards India’s neighbourhood policy. There is a view in Nepal that New Delhi’s policy towards Nepal has not changed at all, even as the country has undergone crucial political transition in the previous decade — from a monarchy to a multi-party democracy. This is an erroneous view as much has changed after the change in the government in Delhi in 2014. Dr Koirala makes a pointed observation: “Nepal is not the same country that it was some years ago. Now we too have people coming back to the country after seeking education from Ivy League universities, like India has. The times are different and it calls for a re-evaluation of India’s policy towards Nepal.” Despite having more cultural leverage over Nepal than China, the view in Kathmandu is that India has lost ground in recent years. Many feel that India’s policy towards Nepal needs to accommodate the changes that are taking place in the Himalayan nation. Dr Koirala is of the opinion that India has had a history of backing “wrong” individuals instead of institutions that would have strengthened the country’s democratic system.

The fact that Nepal is on its way to adopting a democratic system of governance means that common people have started asking tough questions on India’s role in Nepal’s internal affairs. As a result, a host of issues are lying on the table — right from border disputes, the 1950 Indo-Nepal treaty to Indian infrastructure projects stuck in the pipeline — waiting to be resolved and India’s eagerness to clean the slate is under intense scrutiny. “Nepal has outstanding border issues with both India and China. But the boundary issue with India gains more traction because the border is used by people on a daily basis and needs to be resolved immediately,” says Koirala.

“All this has contributed towards an anti-India perception. And perceptions matter in politics,” reminds the NC leader.

Development narrative and perception

The earthquake that shook Nepal in April 2015, killing 9,000 people and injuring 22,000, and the rescue effort complicated India’s and Nepal’s relationship. India and China were among the 90 countries that participated in rescue operations. Indian rescue efforts, which were organised at great speed, came in for criticism for the irresponsible manner in which the Indian media behaved,which many thought was boorish and nationalist. India hurt its cause further after the blockade in Nepal, allowing China to present an alternative route for supplying essential goods.

the fact that the UML and MC have been waging an open war against religious institutions in Nepal has made the Hindu community wary of them

One of the biggest challenges that India faces is a perception about its inability to match China’s development narrative even when there have been scores of instances of time overruns by Chinese companies in the execution of projects. A shopkeeper in Thamel, Bimal, said, “If Chinese projects have been delayed, so have Indian ones.” The view is endorsed by Dr Koirala who says that his country is still waiting for the postal road that was promised in the 1990s. The lack of a proper road in Nepal’s Terai region has led to the region remaining impoverished for several years. “All this has contributed towards an anti-India perception. And perceptions matter in politics,” reminds the NC leader. In recent years, the Indian government is trying to kick-start some of the stalled projects to correct this impression.

The Communist unity and elections

If perceptions are anything to go by, it may carry the Communists to a victory in the upcoming Assembly and parliamentary elections. However, there is a major roadblock — the fact that the UML and MC have been waging an open war against religious institutions in Nepal has made the Hindu community wary of them. Sitting in his office in Kathmandu’s bylanes, weekly magazine Spotlight’s editor, Keshab Paudel, warns of the perils of mixing religion with politics in Nepal. “You can belong to whatever ideology you want but mixing politics with religion is dangerous. It hasn’t happened in Nepal before. And it needs to be countered,” asserts the journalist shortly before he is about to leave for a meeting with the Pashupati Nath temple’s chief priest who is going to make a case for preserving religious institutions in Nepal.

However, it is difficult to say which narrative is going to strike a chord with the Nepalese people in the upcoming elections. As Ashok Rai, a former UML leader who switched ranks to join the Federal Socialist Forum, Nepal (FSFN), puts it, voters in Nepal are naïve because the election process is fairly new to them. “Here, people are going to vote on the basis of the candidates who are being fielded by the various political parties. The image of a person and their approachability plays a major role in determining who is going to win,” says Rai. The larger issues of China’s growing footprint in Nepal or India’s declining relations with the country may not get too much weightage during elections, he stresses.

Dr Koirala, on the other hand, is of the opinion that the Communist alliance is an alliance manufactured to gain an electoral victory and if that doesn’t happen, there is little chance that the tie-up will survive in the aftermath. There is also a view that the coming together of the two parties has not been accepted by their respective cadres and there are numerous “baghi ummeedwaar” (dissenters) who are unhappy with the arrangement. “The left unity is going to fizzle out instantly. These two parties were united only at the top in a way that we call ‘chhapamaar shaili’ (impromptu) unity,” quips Dipak Gyawali, an academician and a former minister of water resources.

The ailing Dalai Lama’s health is being watched by China keenly. In order to prepare the ground for what may follow, Beijing has been steadily working towards playing a larger role in Nepal’s internal policy since the country is home to several Tibetan refugees. But Dr Koirala has other concerns. The rapid pace at which people in the Himalayan country are being converted to Christianity is more worrying for him than Indian or Chinese influence on Nepal. There has been a steady increase in the Christian population in the Himalayan country over the past few years. Hindus constitute 90 percent of the total population, but the consistency with which people have been converting to Christianity has set the alarm bells ringing. “They may overtake our culture soon. And it bothers me to think of the interference coming in from the European Union or the United States,” says Koirala. On mentioning the soft power that India exercises over Nepal because of close familial and cultural ties, the Congress leader says that taking into account the pace at which Nepalese people all across the country are converting to Christianity, it is difficult to say if the Hindu culture that binds the two countries is going to last.

ChinaCommunismCommunist Party of Nepal-Maoist CentreCommunist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-LeninistDr Shekhar KoiralaElectionsFederal Socialist ForumHinduismNepal

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