Communists rule in Nepal - but not the Chinese way
Nepal is among a handful of states in the world ruled by communists. While multiparty democracy and parliamentary politics may not sound synonymous to communism, Nepal’s case might be unique in the sense that the ruling Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) rose to power by winning the majority of seats in parliamentary elections last year.
Nepal is not a nation ruled by a single-party as are China, North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam and Laos. Communism has traditionally been associated with an authoritarian regime in which people and society lack democracy, human rights and press freedom. However, the current government in Nepal is far removed from the dogmatic nature of communism of yesteryear.
The establishment of democracy in 1950 after the armed people’s revolt against the regime started a new beginning in Nepal’s history until the first democratically elected government of B. P. Koirala was overthrown in a coup in 1960 by King Mahendra who started a party-less Panchayat regime. Multiparty democracy was restored by means of a people’s movement in 1990 when King Birendra declared the end of the 30-year old Panchayat regime.
The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) started an armed insurgency in 1996 to establish a republic. The Second People’s Movement of 2006 led to the restoration of democracy. The Maoists, termed as terrorists nationally and internationally, ended their decade long armed struggle against the state and joined mainstream politics. Elections were held in 2008 for a Constituent Assembly (CA) to draft a new constitution and abolish the centuries-old monarchy and declare Nepal a federal democratic republic.
The parliamentary elections of 2017 brought the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) to power.
The Nepali Communist Party was founded in 1949 and has split many times, resulting in several communist parties in Nepal. The CPN was formed in 2017 when the two largest communist parties in Nepal, Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) and Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), merged to form a single party.
The end of the armed Maoist insurgency led the Maoists to join multiparty democracy, enabling their leaders Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ and Baburam Bhattarai to become prime ministers in 2008 and 2011. Prachanda became prime minister for the second time in 2016. Oli too became prime minister for the second time in 2017 leading the unified communist party to an electoral victory in the parliament.
India has traditionally considered South Asia as its sphere of influence as it is the most powerful state in the region. However, China has gradually increased its presence in the region. Nepal is sandwiched between India and China. It shares ancient ties with both its huge immediate neighbors. Nepal’s relations with India are embedded in deep geographical, historical, economic, cultural and religious ties. The open border between them is testimony to the close people-to-people relationship.
However, the bilateral relationship is not free of mistrust as India has displayed hegemonic behavior while dealing with Nepal. The open border also poses security challenges in the form of cross-border crime, smuggling, human trafficking, anti-state activities and terrorism.
China-Nepal relations have remained cordial, based on principles of Panchsheel. As Tibet borders the whole of northern Nepal, China is extremely sensitive in case Tibetans flee into Nepal for refuge and carry out anti-China activities.
Nepal’s decision to become part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a signal that it wants to enhance its relations with China, although no concrete project has been initiated yet. Both India and China have been vital development partners of Nepal and are major sources of foreign direct investment.
It had widely been assumed that the Oli-led communist government in Nepal would try to steer away from the influence of India and into the orbit of communist China. The Oli government recently signed a transit and transport agreement with China to use four sea ports and three land ports for trade with third countries, ending India’s monopoly on the matter.
However, Nepal’s asymmetric dependence on India in the absence of proper road and rail connectivity with China does not appear likely to decrease India’s role any time soon.
Being members of the global communist fraternity, the ruling communist parties of China and Nepal have ideological similarities and working cooperation. However, the usual Chinese policy has been to support whichever government is in Nepal so that its security concerns remain addressed. Similarly, Indian communist parties also have cordial relations with the ruling CPN.
Successive communist governments in Nepal have been part of multiparty politics and are not in the mould of typical communist single party regimes. Despite its intentions to establish a single party communist state, Maoists rebels failed in their objective and ended up being a part of mainstream politics.
Mainstream communist parties of India are part of its multiparty polity. The rebel Indian Maoists, also known as the Naxalites, have waged an armed insurgency against the government in some of the Indian states for the past few decades. They have denounced the Nepali Maoists for joining multiparty politics.
Nepal is a small state compared to India and China, but its crucial geostrategic location has led the US to view it as a vital cog in South Asia. From a strategic point of view, the US would not want the communist government in Nepal to be too close to the Chinese regime so that the concept of communism does not gain wider popularity in the region.
Nepali communist parties are not involved in exporting communism to other parts of the world. They may even be called social democrats. However, they are not willing to drop the communist tag to keep appealing to the voters and to maintain an ideological cord with the idea of communism.
There was speculation both domestically and internationally after the electoral victory of the communists in Nepal that its actions would be autocratic in nature. However, the geopolitical environment surrounding Nepal does not create any scope for autocratic rule in the country. The US and India might perceive Nepali communists as being close to China, but the influence of India in Nepal has been far higher than that of China.
Nepal’s foreign policy has been guided by principles of Panchsheel and non-alignment. It is not in the national interest of Nepal to be a part of any grand strategy of powerful states. The US and India would definitely want to take Nepal away from the influence of China. However, China under Xi Jinping has been proactive in its foreign policy approach.
Nepal has a stable government for the first time after decades of political turmoil. The international community need not be apprehensive about the communist government as the communists have ruled earlier also at various points of time without posing any threat to democracy. The spirit of pluralism in Nepal is strong enough not to tolerate oppression of any sort. Nepal needs to escape the clutches of geopolitics and strive towards economic development and prosperity for its people.