29Jan2023

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Tag: Santosh Sharma Poudel

OP-EDs and Columns

Nepal PM’s Foreign Policy Plate is Full

– SANTOSH Sharma Poudel

The column originally appeared in The Diplomat on 16 January 2023. Please read the original article here.

Nepali politics continues to confound observers. Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Center (CPN-MC) chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who was sworn in as prime minister on December 26 despite his party standing third in the recent general elections, received a strong but surprising boost in a trust vote in parliament on January 10 when his former electoral alliance partners, the Sher Bahadur Deuba-led Nepali Congress (NC) and the Madhav Kumar Nepal-led Communist Party of Nepal-United Socialist (CPN-US), voted in support of his new government.

Less than a fortnight ago, Dahal ditched the NC and CPN-US to head a government with support from the Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli-led Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML). NC and CPN-US backed Dahal in the confidence vote despite his last-minute betrayal.

The decision of the NC and CPN-US to support Dahal has become the topic of much discussion in Nepal. Some speculate that Deuba might have supported Dahal in an attempt to secure a share in the spoils of power. Others see Deuba’s move as aimed at driving a wedge between Dahal and Oli. Meanwhile, others see it as a shrewd move by Dahal to minimize Oli’s influence in the ruling coalition. Whatever the reason, it is evident that instrumentalism determines Nepali politics, and that gaining power is the only currency.

The ruling coalition comprises parties with diverse interests and political goals. Its survival and domestic issues will be Prime Minister Dahal’s primary focus. Speeches of leaders in the new parliament focused on domestic issues like good governance, political stability, corruption control, and effective implementation of federalism.

Coalition partners wield considerable leverage in the new government and Oli, who heads the largest party in this coalition, will exercise significant control. He leads the mechanism to support the government and develop a common minimum program for the coalition government. His leverage will increase if the presidency or the house speakership (or both) go to the CPN-UML. Dahal seems to be in for a rough ride.

Meanwhile, several issues on the foreign policy front deserve Dahal’s immediate attention. The need for Nepal to “balance” its engagement with the big powers – India, the U.S., and China – in the context of heightened Sino-Indian and Sino-U.S. competition while maintaining strategic autonomy and sovereignty will be a major challenge. Another is Nepal’s widening trade deficit. Such challenges have intensified in recent times.

Dahal will need to tackle several issues with India. Firstly, he will need to decide on India’s Agnipath scheme. The previous government, of which Dahal’s party was a coalition partner, kicked the Agnipath can down the road for the next government to deal with. The Agnipath scheme provides for short-term recruitment into the Indian Army, which violates the tripartite agreement between Nepal, Great Britain and India regarding the recruitment of Nepali Gurkhas into the Indian and British armies. Last year, such recruitment in Nepal was suspended because Kathmandu was opposed to the short-term recruitment of Nepalis into the Indian Army. The current government does not have the luxury of delaying a decision on the matter as Gurkha recruitment from Nepal, which has been a critical element in Indo-Nepal relations, is in jeopardy.

Secondly, Nepal needs New Delhi’s cooperation to export hydroelectricity to Bangladesh. In August last year, Nepal and Bangladesh decided to request India to allow the export of 40-50 MW of Nepali hydropower to Bangladesh as Nepal needs to use the Indian grid (via Indian territory) to export electricity to Bangladesh.

When Nepali officials raised the issue during the recent Power Summit organized by the Confederation of Indian Industries on grid connectivity in the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), Indian officials said that the Baharampur-Bheramara line connecting Nepal to Bangladesh was “fully occupied.” Therefore, the issue will test Dahal’s diplomatic skills.

Thirdly, Nepal has requested that India grant air entry points to facilitate aircraft movement to Bhairahawa and Pokhara. The two airports were built by Chinese companies, though the former was funded by the Asian Development Bank. Without India granting appropriate entry points, airplanes will need to circle in Nepal for a few minutes before landing, increasing operational costs. Kathmandu should engage India at the earliest to ensure the international airports are sustainable for airlines to use.

Fourthly, Dahal needs to continue the “return to normalcy” in India-Nepal relations after its nadir in 2020, when the Oli government amended the Nepali map to include Kalapani, Limpiyadhura, and Lipulekh in the far west – territories also claimed by India.

There are also issues with China that require immediate attention. One is China’s opening of the Kerung border point. This was closed with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic but was reopened after Dahal assumed the premiership recently. There are concerns in Nepal over the reopening of this border point amid the surge in COVID-19 cases in China.

Nepal needs clarity on its position on Global Security Initiative (GSI), a Chinese initiative to counter rival regional blocs such as the Quad. Beijing is keen for Nepal to join the GSI. Although Nepal has clarified its commitment to non-alignment, which would mean Nepal will not join any security pacts with any country, President Bidhya Devi Bhandari joined the GSI meeting last year despite the Deuba-led government’s reservations.

Also, Beijing is impatient to see projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) take off in Nepal. Days after Dahal’s appointment as prime minister, a Chinese delegation came to Nepal to conduct a feasibility study of the Kathmandu-Kerung railway connectivity. With a friendlier government in power, Beijing would like to see BRI projects make concrete progress.

Whether Dahal makes New Delhi or Beijing the destination of his first foreign visit will be keenly watched. However, it will be pragmatic if he were to pick New Delhi first, ceteris paribus. As much as his visit to Beijing would show that he is attempting to balance between Nepal’s two giant neighbors, which every leader in Nepal professes and which is the official foreign policy, the fact is that Nepal has more issues that require immediate engagement with its southern neighbor.

Kathmandu is abuzz with speculation that New Delhi wanted Deuba, not Dahal, to lead the new government. However, despite New Delhi’s suspicions of Dahal and Dahal’s earlier misgivings regarding New Delhi, Nepal needs healthy relations with India. He might get a warmer welcome in Beijing than in New Delhi. Yet, a visit to New Delhi will show his intent to tackle difficult issues head-on, not shy away from them.

In this context, his decision to make New Delhi the first port of call, likely to be in late February or early March, is a mature decision. He has the experience of engaging India as prime minister and has a host of immediate and enduring issues on his plate. His level of success in resolving those issues will determine his legacy.

OP-EDs and Columns

With China’s Help, Nepal Chips Away at Its India-lockedness

– SANTOSH Sharma Poudel

The column originally appeared in The Diplomat on 30 December 2022. Please read the original article here.

On December 27, a team of Chinese experts landed in Nepal to conduct the feasibility study of the Kathmandu-Kerung (Geelong) railway. On the same day, China opened the Rasuwagadhi border point, which had remained closed for 35 months because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It came a day after Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Center (CPN-MC) Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, a.k.a. Prachanda, assumed the premiership. These appear to be “goodwill” gestures from China to the new communist leader in Nepal.

The dream of a railroad linking Nepal to China is an old one. King Birendra Shah and Chairman Mao Zedong mooted the idea in 1973.

Landlocked Nepal’s connectivity with the rest of the world is through India. This has been a source of frustration for the Nepali public and policymakers as it has made Nepal very dependent on India. The railroad to China offers Nepal a way to break its India-lockedness and provides it with alternative access to the rest of the world. Also, there is an increasing need for better connectivity, given the expanding trade volume between the two countries. It was after the Indian economic blockade on Nepal in 2015 that Nepal and China accelerated their efforts on making the railway project a reality.

Then-Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli signed an agreement in 2018 during his visit to China. In April 2019, China included the Nepal-China Trans-Himalayan Multidimensional Connectivity Network in Beijing’s joint communiqué of the second Belt and Road Forum. The two countries signed an MoU on the feasibility study of the proposed railway during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Nepal in October 2019. Xi said the connectivity network would help Nepal “transform from a landlocked country to a land-linked country.” For China, the vision is a part of Xi’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.

The proposed rail will connect to the Lasha-Shigatse railway in Tibet. On the other side of the border, the rail could be expanded to connect Pokhara and Lumbini, two other major cities in Nepal.

The railroad offers hope and has significant potential. It will symbolize the Nepali dream of better infrastructure and economic connectivity and represent good Nepal-China relations. Strategically, railway connectivity with China diversifies Nepal’s connectivity and reduces dependence upon India. It will ensure Nepal will suffer minimal consequences if India imposes a blockade in the future. Economically, it will facilitate trade with China. Supporters also point out that the railroad could be instrumental in bringing a large number of tourists from China to Nepal.

However, obstacles aplenty remain. First, the railroad has to transverse the mighty Himalayas. The terrain and ecology are challenging. China has shown that it can build a railroad in a complex landscape. However, the trans-Himalayan railroad will test Chinese abilities. Almost 98 percent of the railroad will either be a bridge or tunnel because of the terrain.

Second, the cost of the railroad is a primary concern. Previous estimates put the cost at $3 billion. However, it is expected to now cost around $8 billion (to link up to Shigatse). We will have a more accurate estimate after the feasibility study. There is a high chance of the cost being revised upwards. It will be a massive commitment for Nepal, whose GDP is around $30 billion.

Third, China has provided a grant for the feasibility study, estimated to cost around $300 million. However, it will be loans that will likely fund the implementation of the project. There is a fear that Nepal could go the Sri Lankan way if Nepal undertakes such loans without due diligence. The Nepali media is abuzz with apprehensions over the “debt trap,” citing what transpired in Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. The Nepali ambassador to China has sought to dissuade such concerns, but it will not be easy.

Fourth, some are concerned that the railway does not benefit Nepal. Nepal’s trade with China amounted to NRs 235 billion ($1.8 billion) in 2020/21. However, Nepal’s exports accounted for a paltry NRs 1 billion ($8 million). With a 1:234 export-to-import ratio, trains running will carry Chinese goods to Nepali markets but can be expected to return empty. Therefore, the railroad could only increase Nepal’s imports from China.

Fifth, India sees the Himalayas as its natural defense frontier and the region south of the Himalayas as its sphere of influence. It could see the railroad as China broaching India’s security perimeter. India was not pleased when Nepal signed the BRI agreement in 2017.

Talks of a railroad connecting Nepal to China has had India on its toes. In recent years, Nepal and India have upgraded and expanded the dysfunctional Janakpur-Jayanagar railway to Kurtha. In April, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and then Nepali Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba jointly flagged the cross-border railway service between Jayanagar (India) to Kurtha. The 35-km-long railway was built with an Indian grant worth NRs 10 billion ($75 million). In addition, work is underway to expand the road to Bardibas via Bijalpura. This is one of the five cross-border links being talked about between Nepal and India.

Nepal has its task cut out. Firstly, it needs to do a cost-benefit analysis in conjugation with the financing modality. If the current trade trend continues, the benefit to Nepal will be minimal. Meanwhile, Kathmandu needs to engage New Delhi to communicate Nepal’s rationale and assure it that the railway will not affect Indian security interests. Nepal needs connectivity with both neighbors, and it is not a competition. Also, Nepal needs to harmonize infrastructure development to its northern border with China and its southern border with India to support Nepal’s growth.

India builds a broader gauge railway, and China, a standard gauge. It will be a challenge for Nepal to find a way to make the railway tracks built in collaboration with the two countries interoperable. This will be a major test of Nepal’s diplomacy.

OP-EDs and Columns

Pushpa Kamal Dahal Heads New Government in Nepal

– SANTOSH Sharma Poudel

The column originally appeared in The Diplomat on 27 December 2022. Please read the original article here.

This year’s Christmas brought a “surprise” in Nepal. Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre (CPN-MC), which won only 32 seats in the 275-member lower house of parliament in the recent general election, was appointed prime minister after he secured the support of seven parties, including the party led by arch-rival Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML).

Sher Bahadur Deuba, who believes that he is destined to be the prime minister of Nepal seven times and was expecting to be the premier for the sixth time, was left out to dry, although his party, the Nepali Congress (NC), won the largest number of seats.

The timely election and selection of the prime minister is an achievement for Nepal’s nascent democratic process. Yet, the formation of the government reeks of a democratic deficit. CPN-MC, which stood a distant third and won only 11 percent of the votes, will lead a government that excludes the largest party. Nepal’s parties have ignored the “mandate of the people.”

As expected, the November 20 election produced a fractured result. The NC emerged as the largest party, winning 89 seats in the federal parliament. CPN-UML, CPN-MC, the National Independent Party (NIP), and the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) rounded off the top five, winning 78, 32, 20, and 14 seats, respectively. The newly-elected parliamentarians took the oath of office on December 22.

Parties had jostled for electoral alliances before the elections. Two major alliances contested the polls: a five-party ruling coalition led by the NC, which included Dahal’s CPN-MC, and the opposition coalition led by the CPN-UML. As the election results started to pour in, leaders of political parties engaged in negotiations on government formation. Deuba was confident that the ruling coalition would endure. Dahal repeated the same in public until he made a volte-face at the eleventh hour on December 25.

Primarily, two parties were vocal about their claim to lead the government: NC and CPN-MC. Within the NC, Deuba was challenged by a young leader, Gagan Thapa. While Gagan Thapa remains popular among the general populace and represents the change of generation from the old to young leaders, Deuba has a significant numerical advantage within the NC. Thus, the NC elected Deuba as the leader of the parliamentary party, who is also the party’s prime ministerial candidate, over Thapa by 64-29 votes. Meanwhile, the CPN-MC selected Dahal unopposed.

With this, the contest narrowed down to one between Deuba and Dahal. The two leaders had agreed to take turns leading the government, but neither was willing to concede the chance to lead the government first. Deuba felt he had the natural claim to the leadership first because his party was the largest by a mile, and he was confident that Dahal and Oli would not get back together. Dahal claimed it was his turn after Deuba led the government from 2021 to 2022.

Meanwhile, Dahal was engaging Oli’s CPN-UML through his trusted lieutenants. Oli was waiting in the wings to drive a wedge in the ruling coalition.ADVERTISEMENT

The president invited leaders to claim premiership with majority support by December 25. Deuba was steadfast in his claim of the premiership as the day loomed. Then, Dahal left the coalition and indicated his ditching of the alliance, saying it had “lost its relevance.”

The next day, Dahal received the support of the seven parties, including the CPN-UML, to become the prime minister for the third time. So it is déjà vu, and 2017 again, though the left parties have weakened significantly and needed support from newer parties.

Politics has created strange bedfellows in Nepal in the past. However, this coalition trumps them all.

Besides the CPN-MC and CPN-UML, the coalition includes the four-month-old NIP, the conservative RPP, Madhes-based Janata Samjbadi Party-Nepal (JSP-N) and Janamat Party (JP), and ethnic Nagarik Unmukti Party (NUP) as well as three independent members of the parliament.

Among the coalition partners, the CPN-MC and the CPN-UML largely share common agenda. They were instrumental in introducing federalism and making Nepal a secular state. However, Oli has has indicated his aversion to federalism and secularism in recent times. At a personal level, Oli and Dahal share a tumultuous relationship.

If the two communist parties are from Venus, other coalition partners are from Mars. NIP ran on a “no, not again” platform, attempting to usurp anti-establishment votes. NIP’s leader, Rabi Lamichhane, had said that he would not be a part of any government led by the establishment leaders. The RPP ran on the agenda of reviving constitutional monarchy and the Hindu state. NIP and RPP seek to undo the provincial structure. JP contested against the JSP-N, accusing the latter of ignoring the Madhesi people’s issues in their lust for power. NUP ran on an anti-establishment platform, arguing that the Tharu community in the mid-Terai needed to be freed from the establishment’s control.

The coalition partners have come together in their lust for power. There is bare-knuckle bargaining going on for ministerial portfolios and other political appointments, including in provinces. It can be seen in Lamichhane’s appointment as the deputy prime minister and home minister. There is a court petition against Lamichhane, a Nepali citizen-turned U.S. citizen-turned Nepali citizen, regarding his citizenship. Yet, he now leads the ministry which issues the citizenship certificate. It symbolizes that the coalition is devoid of ethics too.’

Given the breadth of the coalition, Dahal’s focus will be to maintain his hold on power. He will lead the government for at least two years, for the constitution mandates that a no-confidence motion cannot be introduced against a prime minister for two years. However, we can expect a revolving door for the ministerial portfolios. The council of ministers will likely report to their party leaders, not necessarily to the prime minister, weakening the government. It will be a huge miracle if there is a smooth transfer of power to Oli after two years. It will not be a surprise if a new coalition emerges then.

China and India quickly offered “warm congratulations” to the new Prime Minister.

Some Indian analysts believed New Delhi was readying to welcome Deuba as the prime minister. Others, such as former Indian envoy to Nepal Ranjit Roy, had expressed the need for India to engage all parties, big and small. Nepal’s relations with India had normalized under the Deuba-government after it had hit a new low during Oli’s tenure over Nepal’s new map in 2020.

New Delhi is not very fond of Dahal. In its early stages, his party called India an “expansionist” force. He has accused New Delhi of orchestrating his ouster from prime ministership in 2008 and insinuated that New Delhi plotted to kill him. However, he has changed his tune in recent times. During his visit to New Delhi earlier this year, he visited the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headquarters. He met with many senior leaders although Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi snubbed him. However, New Delhi still considers Dahal unreliable.

Meanwhile, China could not have been happier at the moment. China had nudged CPN-MC and CPN-UML for a communist unification in 2017 and had tried its best to keep the unified Nepal Communist Party (NCP) together when it was on the verge of splitting at the end of 2020. Beijing was less engaged this time but will cheer the communist-plus coalition.

Deuba, known in Beijing as a pro-India leader, cold shouldered the Belt and Road Initiative, a pet project of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, arguing that he prefers grants to loans. Deuba led the ratification of the $500 million American grant, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), despite vocal Chinese opposition. He has been wary of the Chinese Communist Party as it has invested in party-to-party relations with Nepal’s communist parties.

Dahal shares a better relationship with Nepal’s northern neighbor. His fondness for China will be of concern to the U.S. American engagement in Nepal has increased tremendously in recent years and could slow down during Dahal’s term.

However, Dahal has been pragmatic, if unimaginative, about Nepal’s relations with the two neighbors and the U.S. He has been in politics and power long enough to understand the importance of all three major powers and their interests in Nepal. Therefore, we may not see any significant turn in foreign policy like he frequently does in national politics.

In saying that, the new government has a gamut of issues that require immediate attention. The Deuba-led government had put off the difficult decision on the Agnipath scheme of recruiting soldiers in India. Dahal will have to deal with that controversial issue now. Border disputes with India and China need his immediate attention too. The most pressing will be how Nepal engages India, China, and the U.S. amidst the Sino-Indian regional tension and the Sino-American global tussle. It will also be the issue with the most far-reaching consequences for Nepal’s security.

Dahal has shown his Machiavellian nature to grab leadership at home. We will find out if he can pull out a “surprise” in Nepal’s foreign policy.

OP-EDs and Columns

Nepali Voters Deliver a Fractured Mandate in Parliamentary Elections

– SANTOSH Sharma Poudel

The column originally appeared in The Diplomat on 29 November 2022. Please read the original article here.

The Nepali Congress (NC), which heads Nepal’s ruling coalition, has emerged as the single largest party in the parliamentary elections held on November 20. It is followed by the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), the main opposition party.

While the CPN-UML received marginally more votes than the NC under the proportional representation (PR) system (where voters cast a ballot for parties), the NC’s stronger showing under the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system put it ahead in the race to form Nepal’s next government. Most of the votes have been counted, but the total number of seats won by each party will take a few more days to be tallied. Meanwhile, leaders are engaging in hectic meetings, each seeking to corner a share in the next government.

In the run-up to the voting, analysts had described this election as a defining moment in Nepali politics. Voter frustration with the establishment’s inability to deliver economic growth and good governance was running high. The victory of a few young candidates in local elections held in May indicated that young, independent, and non-political candidates can take on and win big against the traditional political elite.

However, results from the parliamentary election indicate that this was an incrementally progressive election, but not transformational. The three major establishment parties came on top. The NC and the CPN-UML were followed by the Pushpa Kamal Dahal-led Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Center (CPN-MC) in third place. The National Independent Party (NIP), a party registered barely a few months before the election, came in fourth.

Yet this election represented a break from the past; it displayed some new facets. First, voters unambiguously expressed frustration at the establishment. Six current ministers and 60 former parliamentarians lost their bids to return to parliament. Though the three major parties avoided the worst outcome, many of their senior leaders failed to win their seats.

Second, the NIP reaped the benefits of voter frustration and has emerged as a significant force in national politics. Voters exercised their franchise in favor of establishment candidates in the FPTP but used their PR vote in favor of the NIP. The NIP apparently chipped away votes from the three major establishment parties. Each of those three parties lost about 3 percentage points in vote share compared to 2017. The NIP has received 11 percent of the votes.

Third, people’s frustration also manifested at the regional level. A new regional party led by C.K. Raut disrupted the established order in Madhes province in southern Nepal in national and provincial elections.

The election also marks a comeback of social and political conservatism in Nepali politics. The Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), a monarchist and Hindu-nationalist party, won seven seats and almost 6 percent of the votes (in the 2017 election, it won one seat and 2 percent of the votes). A liberal agenda has dominated Nepali politics since 2006.

No party or coalition has received a clear mandate. At least three parties must cobble together a coalition to form a government unless the two main rivals, NC and CPN (UML) come together. This will likely create more instability and horse-trading among parliamentarians and parties. The pre-poll alliances were bereft of any ideology. The lust for power would only intensify in such a hung parliament. Hence, there will be more instability. The grand-left coalition won a significant majority in the last election, yet its reign ended acrimoniously within three years.

More coalition partners would mean a weaker government. The prime minister-to-be will find it difficult to impose his vision on the council of ministers. In the current ruling coalition, the ministers were answerable more to their party chief than the prime minister. To ensure his government’s survival, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba could not even sack Finance Minister Janardan Sharma of the CPN-MC.

The NIP rode the anti-establishment sentiment and promise of good governance without detailing how to deliver. The party, which is more a coalition of a wide range of candidates disappointed with the establishment, is untested. It is not yet clear if the NIP will be a part of the government or sit in the opposition.

On foreign policy, all parties have touted non-alignment and “balanced” policies in their manifestos based on the principles of the United Nations and the Panchasheel. However, there are subtle differences among parties, such as the NC’s preference for grants and not loans. This is an apparent reference to funding for Belt and Road Initiative projects.

A cobbled coalition of multiple parties will be weak and not assertive in foreign policy. Neither will such a coalition change the track radically. This would neither be the best outcome for any major powers (such as India, the United States, or China) nor would it be the worst. It would also mean that Nepali foreign policy is likely to be reactive and ad hoc.

The CPN-MC and Communist Party of Nepal–United Socialist (CPN-US) have vowed to regulate the border with India and review the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship with India. However, they are unlikely to follow it up in any meaningful way, even if they are part of the ruling coalition. No party presented its concrete view on issues requiring immediate attention, such as the Agnipath scheme. India has already reached out to key leaders of the ruling coalition.

The United States has concerns over the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC)’s implementation. The MCC is a $500-million grant for building energy and transport infrastructure. The Nepali parliament ratified the agreement earlier in February after a toxic debate. Similarly, China would like a more Beijing-friendly government to ensure the implementation of BRI projects.

These major global powers will jockey for influence in Nepal. The next government will have to manage the major world powers, whose interests in Nepal do not align. The next government has its task cut out. But its foreign policy can only be sorted if the domestic house is in order.

OP-EDs and Columns

Rise of young, independent candidates a worrying sign for aging political leaders

– SANTOSH Sharma Poudel

The column originally appeared in The Republica Daily on 19 November 2022. Please read the original article here.

Will the young guns ever replace the old guards?

The federal and provincial elections are just one day away. Mainstream political parties have projected confidence in the public but express concern at the visible surge of young and independent candidates. Some youth seem energized at the prospect of change. Yet, others remain skeptical that the young guns will ever replace the old guards.

While discussing with a group of more than a dozen students at King’s College, Buddhanagar (which offers foreign university-affiliated courses) in Kathmandu, I was astounded by their lack of interest in politics. It was not because they had no access to information. They chose ‘Routine of Nepal Banda’ as their primary source of information. They knew Balendra Shah but precisely little else. It could mean young people (urban youth from an economically privileged background) are disinterested in politics or the mainstream politics and political leaders do not appeal to them.

Polls in other countries too suggest that youth are more apathetic to politics than older voters. Even in neighboring India, state elections have seen a decline in youth voting since 2019.

Most youths who participated in the discussion at the King’s College wanted to go abroad and thus were hardly interested in politics or felt that ‘all leaders were the same’.

A nationally representative survey of 1080 individuals aged between 18 to 40 years conducted by the Nepal Institute for Policy Research (NIPoRe), and supported by Freidrich Ebert Stiftung-Nepal (FES-N), tests the perception.

A whopping 83 percent of young people feel that mainstream political leaders are worried about their petty personal interests, and more than half think they do not represent grassroots interests. However, it is not that the youths feel the leaders are incapable. Ironically, 77 percent still believe that the current political leadership can improve governance if they desired to do so. However, they conclude that the current leaders care less about delivering for the people.

Almost two-thirds of youths disagree that Nepal’s politics is heading in the right direction. Because youths make up a big chunk of the electorate, it should be a warning sign for the political leaders of Nepal.

This, especially, opens the path for young, independent candidates or fresh faces. Buoyed by the success of some young and independent candidates in the local elections, mainly Balendra Shah of Kathmandu, there are more such independent candidates in the upcoming provincial and federal elections. The survey shows that three out of four young voters are willing to vote for a ‘fresh face’ even if such candidates are unlikely to win. 

Another encouraging factor for the young candidates is that youth voters care less about party affiliation (only 10 percent said candidates’ party affiliation was necessary) and more about the candidates’ profile, ideology, and past performance. Therefore, the success of new and independent candidates will depend on their ability to reach out, engage and get the youth to the voting booth.

However, youths care about the same issues as the rest of the population. Infrastructure development, economic growth/jobs, education, health, and governance rounded off the top five spots in youth priority. Meanwhile, issues such as agriculture, social security and religious identity, which could be of more interest to older  generation and rural voters, mattered less for the youths. Hence, the youth population is looking more for opportunities than handouts.

Similarly, family and friends play a critical role in their political decisions. One-third of youths discuss politics at home, and more than two in five talk about politics with friends. One in ten youths decide whom to vote for based on the discussion with them. This opens up an opportunity for candidates to reach out to families via the youths. Balendra Shah employed this method effectively to win Kathmandu’s mayoral election, defying the expectations of many analysts.

In saying so, reaching out to young voters will take tireless effort. Less than half the youths read the news regularly (at least once a week). They rely primarily on Facebook for information but do not make a decision based on a candidate’s post on the platform. This could lead to a vicious cycle of information lapse and non-engagement of the youths. They are less likely to watch political speeches and join campaigns.

Youth’s reliance on social media also poses new risks of mis/disinformation campaigns. Half the youths will ‘ignore’ misinformation/hate speech because they fear retribution from candidates’ supporters if they correct or criticize the posts. The spread of short ‘viral’ clips of the candidates could have a more considerable influence on the youth’s decision, positively or negatively.

The survey offers hope for the country and young/independent candidates. Youths feel responsible for their political future. And there are also valid lessons for mainstream political parties to take away: If they can choose better and more capable candidates, this could help them perform better in future elections. And this way, young people’s approach to politics might also be healthy for Nepal’s future democracy. Meanwhile, young/independent candidates will likely put the mainstream political parties’ candidates on their toes, especially in urban areas.

OP-EDs and Columns

Young Candidates Rattle the Old Guard in Nepal’s Elections

– SANTOSH Sharma Poudel

The column originally appeared in The Diplomat on 18 November 2022. Please read the original article here.

Nepal is less than two days away from voting in federal and provincial elections. Campaigning for votes ended at midnight on November 17, and the country has entered a cooling-off period before voting on November 20.

The primary contest is between the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress (NC) and the opposition coalition led by former Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli of the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML). This election has marked a surge in independent candidates challenging the old guard, which has traditionally dominated Nepali politics, in ways never seen in the past.

Since 1990, when Nepal became a multi-party parliamentary democracy it has had 28 governments led by 14 leaders. Deuba has held the post of prime minister for a record five times, since his first stint in 1995. Though parties and politicians compete fiercely against each other in elections, shared interests, which include power and business contracts, do see them join hands from time to time.

New political forces have entered politics in recent years only to become clones of the older parties. Consider the Pushpa Kamal Dahal-led Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Center (CPN-MC), for instance, which entered mainstream politics in 2006, after waging a 10-year insurgency. Today, it is no longer distinguishable from the other mainstream parties.

Over the decades, Nepal has gone through major political transformations. It experimented with multi-party democracy, an absolute monarchy and a constitutional one, republicanism, and federal republicanism. While the system changed, the actors remained the same.

At the same time, governance has gone from bad to worse. Corruption has become institutionalized. Political ideology is in a coma, replaced by petty self-interest. Power is no longer the means but a goal in itself.

This has led to extreme frustration among the people.

The Nepali people have embraced political change and newer political forces in the hope of better governance. They gave a chance to the CPN-MC and made it the largest party in the first elections that it contested after the insurgency, hoping it would provide better governance. They also gave the grand-left alliance in 2017 a chance. Unfortunately, both did not deliver the goods.ADVERTISEMENT

When they were not presented with new options, they chose between the two “known devils” – the NC and the CPN-UML.

Elections to local bodies in May this year were a game-changer. Forty percent of the candidates in the election were between 21 and 40 years of age. The election of Balendra Shah, a young and independent candidate, as Kathmandu’s mayor shook the establishment to the core. Shah’s opponents and analysts had dismissed his candidacy. But the lackluster performance of the previous mayor of the CPN-UML, poor candidate selection by the mainstream parties, and innovative and disciplined campaigning by Shah’s supporters propelled him to power against all odds.

Shah’s victory in the local polls has prompted several independent and young Nepalis to throw their hat in the ring in the general election. They are challenging the old guard.

Sagar Dhakal, a 31-year-old engineer, is running against Deuba in the latter’s home turf. Initially, Deuba was dismissive of Dhakal’s candidature and did not bother to campaign. Meanwhile, Dhakal engaged voters directly on the ground.

With Dhakal evoking remarkable enthusiasm, even among older voters, a worried Deuba rushed to his constituency to campaign. He can no longer take the constituency, which elected him in every election since 1990, for granted.

Similarly, Deuba’s alliance partner, Dahal is contesting this time from a new constituency – Gorkha, instead of his hometown in Chitwan. The former Maoist leader, who is often referred to by his nom de guerre Prachanda or “fearless one,” has given his decision to shift constituencies a positive spin. He claimed that the decision emerged from a position of strength, i.e. he can win from any constituency. His opponents, however, allege that he “ran away” seeking a safer constituency.

Young, independent candidates with no background in politics are giving the mainstream parties’ candidates a run for their money. Senior NC leaders such as Prakash Man Singh and Gagan Thapa are not assured of victory in the capital. There is similar competition in some other urban centers.

Second-tier leaders from the mainstream parties, especially in urban areas, are facing a stiff challenge from political novices. These include former Lumbini province Chief Minister Shankar Pokharel, Vice Chairman of the Planning Commission Bishow Paudel and prime ministerial aspirant Gagan Thapa.

Mainstream political parties are projecting confidence before the public but express concern in private.

This is not to suggest that the independent candidates will overthrow the existing political order or come to power. On the contrary, the NC and CPN-UML are still favored to emerge as the two largest parties. However, candidates cannot take their victory as a given.ADVERTISEMENT

The challenge from the young candidates has forced the older, mainstream politicians to introspect. It has pressured them to go to the voters directly and engage them. Besides, if some challengers win, it will break the existing self-serving cartel between the mainstream parties. Also, a loss for any of the party supremos will send chills down the spine of all others.

Victories, or even a close run, for some independent candidates, will send a strong message but will not upset the current order. In a parliamentary system, parties are essential. It is more so in Nepal, where the national parties can use a whip that requires parliamentarians to vote along party lines or face a penalty, and parliamentarians hardly defy party lines.

This election is pivotal. In the lust for power, parties have sidelined ideology. Will the voters sideline traditional party/voting affiliation in their desire for good governance? We are about to find out.

OP-EDs and Columns

The Election Manifestos of Nepal’s Parties Run Along Predictable Lines

– SANTOSH Sharma Poudel

The column originally appeared in The Diplomat on 10 November 2022. Please read the original article here.

On November 20 Nepal will vote in federal and provincial elections. Contesting the elections are two major coalitions, one led by the ruling Nepali Congress (NC) and the other by the main opposition, the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist), or CPN-UML. In addition, the National Independent Party (NIP) and independent candidates are seeking to upend the “natural” political order.

Political and economic issues have dominated the political parties’ agenda per their manifestos. Parties have pledged to develop better infrastructure, accelerate economic growth to over 7 percent, create 250,000 jobs per year, and provide free services such as electricity and water. Similarly, some parties are seeking to change the political system. For example, the Pushpa Kamal Dahal, aka Prachanda-led Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), or CPN-MC, and the royalist Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) have promised a directly elected head of government, and the latter has pledged to abolish the country’s provinces and create a more unitary system of government.

The manifestos have lofty goals, and many have questioned if they are achievable. The performance of parties in power has been disappointing especially with regard to delivering on promises. Where parties have little to show in progress or achievements, they have resorted to making more promises or slinging mud at their opponents. They are trading barbs on foreign policy issues as well.

Former Prime Minister and CPN-UML chief Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli has touted that Nepal’s constitution was amended to include a disputed territory with India as part of Nepal during his tenure. He has presented himself as the only leader who can stand up to Indian pressure. Describing Prime Minister and NC chief Sher Bahadur Deuba as a weak leader, he has chided him for failing to publicly and timely raise the issue of the death of a Nepali child in the Darchula district when a rock from a blast on the Indian side hit him.

Parties are divided over China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a $500 million American grant. The NC, which steadfastly supported the MCC and led its ratification by parliament, states that Nepal would prefer grants rather than commercial loans in an apparent reference to the BRI. This reflects NC’s bias against China, according to some analysts. Meanwhile, other parties have made no such distinction.

The difference can also be seen in how to deal with India. Parties such as the CPN-MC and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Socialist (CPN-US) have vowed to regulate the border and review the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship with India. Additionally, the CPN-MC has stated that it would raise the issue of the recruitment of Gorkha soldiers in India. The Gorkha recruitment has been a contentious issue since India launched the Agnipath scheme, whereby India would recruit soldiers on a short-term basis in contravention of the 1947 tripartite agreement between Nepal, India, and the United Kingdom. They also differ in their engagement with China. Some parties, such as the NC, have lumped minor territorial disputes with China in with major ones with India, while Nepal’s communist parties are generally mum on the country’s dispute with China.

Interestingly, the CPN-MC and the RPP have vowed to declare Nepal a Zone of Peace. King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah, who ruled Nepal from 1972 to 2001, championed the zone of peace proposal almost fifty years ago, but it was abandoned because of India’s opposition despite support from more than 100 countries. The RPP proposal is a revival of Birendra’s proposal but MC does not refer to the monarch’s initiative.

However, there is broader agreement among parties regarding the basic principles. All parties have stated that they are for an independent, non-aligned foreign policy based on the principles of the United Nations and the Panchasheel. Similarly, there is consensus among parties’ opposition to joining military alliances and commitment to not allowing Nepali territory to be used against neighboring countries.

Climate change is another common agenda. This is the first time climate change has been directly included in major parties’ manifestos. Nepal is among the most vulnerable countries to climate change. The recognition of the issue marks that the parties understand the severity of the case and the need for Nepal to engage global partners to mitigate its impacts.

Yet, the foreign policy agendas of Nepal’s parties lack imagination. The parties still seem to be hooked on a “balanced” foreign policy and hyphenating India-China and China-U.S. vis-à-vis Nepal. Nepal’s relations with India, China, and the U.S., the country’s three most important partners, are unique.

Nonetheless, parties are still attempting to equate Nepal-India relations with Nepal-China relations or to view Nepal’s engagement with China and the U.S. via a narrow strategic lens. The parties have also failed to appreciate the more significant trends in the regional and global order although the CPN-MC does mention a “new Cold War between China and the U.S.,” and the NC recognizes the growing nationalist tendencies globally.

Generally speaking, elections are mostly about domestic issues. In the words of James Carville, “it is the economy, stupid.” Yet, when domestic achievements are minimal, foreign policy plays a more prominent role. Additionally, the unique relations between Nepal and India have blurred some lines between domestic and foreign policy, as in India’s Agnipath scheme. Nepali parties have chosen a traditional and safe foreign policy with little surprises.

Based on the manifestos, a common minimum consensus is the least of the concerns for political parties in Nepal. The bigger challenge is whether the leaders can follow their proposals and principles or make ad hoc foreign policy decisions based on personal cost-benefit analysis.

OP-EDs and Columns

Coalitions in the Fray in Nepal’s Elections Are Marriages of Convenience

– SANTOSH Sharma Poudel

The column originally appeared in The Diplomat on 25 October 2022. Please read the original article here.

Nepal is in the grip of election fever. The main contest is between two coalitions: the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s Nepali Congress (NC), and the opposition alliance led by Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML).

These are the second round of federal and provincial elections to be held in Nepal since the promulgation of the constitution in 2015.

The “unnatural” coalitions have left many flabbergasted. Kathmandu Post, Nepal’s largest-selling English daily, was blunt in its criticism of the alliances. The elections “had been turned into a dance of undemocratic coalitions as political parties hanker to return to power, by all means, fair and foul,” it said. Another major daily, Republica, expressed ”surprise” that parties that are poles apart in political ideologies and policies have formed alliances. It could lead to a “democratic deficit,” it said. Others have called the alliances a “farce” for not offering voters real choices.

Since the 1990s, parties have formed alliances to form governments in Nepal. The 2017 election was the first time that major communist forces led by Oli and Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also known as Prachanda, formed a pre-poll alliance. The left alliance won the election and secured a near-two-thirds majority, although it secured just 10 percent more votes than the NC. It prompted a realization among parties of the importance of pre-poll alliances, especially in a winner-takes-all election.

There is little doubt that both alliance partners lack ideological similarity or even common policy goals. They have merely come together as a result of the political context.

The ruling coalition, which counts the Prachanda-led Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Center (CPN-MC) among others as partners, came together to oust Oli from power after the latter dissolved parliament against the provisions of the constitution, twice. The desire to keep Oli out of power has primarily held this coalition together. Apprehensive at the prospect of fighting a coalition, the opposition, too, scrambled together to boost its electoral chances.

The alliance partners are strange bedfellows. For example, the Prachanda-led MC once called its current partner, the NC, a party of the bourgeoisie that had tried to decimate it during the decade-long insurgency. Interestingly, Deuba was the prime minister who put a price tag on Prachanda’s head during the peak of the Maoist insurgency.

Likewise, the UML is the nemesis of the Janata Samajbadi party (JSP), which advocates for Madhesi rights. Also, while the UML has a history of fighting against monarchy, its alliance partner now is the Hindu nationalist and royalist Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP).ADVERTISEMENT

Parties have openly said that the alliance is one of convenience to win more seats in the election. “We still have our ideological differences, but we agreed to forge a partnership to improve our electoral prospects,” JSP spokesman Manish Kumar Suman admitted. The JSP dropped out of the ruling coalition after a disagreement over seat allocation to join the opposition.

Opportunism is evident at an individual level too. Prabhu Sah, former minister for urban development, was allotted a ticket to fight as a candidate of the opposition alliance, only to do a volte-face at literally the eleventh hour. At the election office, he registered as an independent candidate after the ruling alliance assured him support.

Prachanda and Oli were comrades-in-arms during the last election in 2017. Together, they swept the federal elections and co-led a unified communist party, the Nepal Communist Party (NCP). However, the lust for power and position led to an acrimonious split in the NCP. Now, they are bitter rivals, engaged in a game of one-upmanship against each other.

Yet it would be wrong to assume that alliance partners don’t share goals. The ruling alliance has weaved a narrative that the coalition is one of necessity and more than an attempt to win the election. Its leaders assert that the alliance is necessary to safeguard the constitution from changes by regressive forces. Prachanda said the alliance was essential after Oli led Nepal toward lawlessness and instability.

The ruling alliance’s agenda is to keep Oli and the UML out of power. Oli’s attempts to dissolve the parliament and isolate Prachanda (and Madhav Kumar Nepal, chairman of Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Socialist, a splinter of the UML) in the party led to the current ruling coalition. However, political expediency is keeping the ruling coalition together for the time being.

Interestingly, parties face challenges from within the alliance.

First, many long-serving party cadres who were denied party tickets have chosen to run as “rebel” candidates, while others have bolted to the opposition alliance. This is especially the case among NC leaders, who find voting for a communist party untenable. They have filed candidacies in constituencies where the alliance is fielding a communist candidate. The party has expelled such rebel candidates. There is similar discontent in the opposition alliance. Eighteen central committee members of the RPP wrote to their chair, expressing dissatisfaction with a partnership with the UML.

Therefore, the election result will partly depend upon which alliance manages to pacify disgruntled members and get them to support the alliance candidates.

Second, leaders are concerned that voters will cross party lines to vote for candidates from a different party. This was less of a worry in the 2017 election, where both alliance partners were cadre-based communist parties. However, the current alliances are not natural. NC leaders, such as Gagan Thapa, have said that some party members find it hard to vote for the “hammer and sickle” (the communist party symbol). Therefore, senior leaders of the ruling alliance are taking every opportunity to urge party members and voters to support alliance members. It remains to be seen if voters heed their request.

Third, will alliances last post-election? Even Deuba thinks the coalition is not meant for the long term. In a training session with alliance members, he stated that the alliance should continue for a few years beyond the elections because the threat from regressive forces (read the UML) continues. In the 2017 election, the communist parties won in a landslide and even formally merged their parties, yet it barely lasted three years. Therefore, it would not be surprising if a new coalition emerged after the election.ADVERTISEMENT

Analysts are concerned that the politics-driven, agenda-less, and ideologically fraught alliances effectively deny space for genuine elections where people can vote for the parties of their choice. Others warn that such “debased culture could ultimately lead to a serious crisis in democracy.”

These warnings are genuine but may be overblown. Voters cast two votes in the provincial and federal election: one for the candidates (for winner-takes-all, 165 seats) and the other for the party (for proportional seats, 110 seats). Thus, voters still have the opportunity to vote for their preferred parties.

Also, even when parties contested by themselves before the 2017 elections, it hardly resulted in stable politics or policies based on the ideological principles of the parties or candidates. In practice, there are nominal differences in how democratic or communist parties have run the country when in power. Barring a few, parties and political leaders have placed themselves over ideologies.

OP-EDs and Columns

It’s Election Season in Nepal Again

SANTOSH Sharma Poudel

The column originally appeared in The Diplomat on 10 October 2022. Please read the original article here.

Nepal is gearing up for federal and provincial elections to be held on November 20. This is the second election since the promulgation of the new constitution in 2015.

Institutions such as the legislature, judiciary and the President’s Office have been under criticism over the last few years for functioning against democratic norms. Free and fair elections are necessary to breathe new life into Nepal’s nascent democracy and the upcoming vote will be closely watched.

Even as the November elections represent continuity in some areas, they are also expected to see change too.

As in previous elections, in the upcoming one too political parties are forming pre-poll alliances. In the 2017 election, alliance formation had a major impact on the election result. The grand leftist coalition of the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) [CPN-UML] and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center) [CPN-MC] swept the election, winning 116 of 165 seats, while the main opposition party, the Nepali Congress (NC), won only 26 seats. This was despite the fact that the left alliance received only 10 percent more votes than the NC. It underscored the significance of alliances, especially in a winner-takes-all election.

Although the upcoming election will see alliances in the fray, in terms of composition the alliances are new. On one hand, there is the ruling coalition, which comprises the NC, CPN-MC, Communist Party of Nepal (United Socialist) [CPN-US] that splintered from the CPN-UML, the Terai-based Loktrantrik Samajwadi Party (LSP), and Rashtriya Janamorcha (RJ). On the other, the CPN-UML has partnered with the Hindu-nationalist Rashtriya Prajatrantra Party (RPP) and Janata Samajwadi Party (JSP), a disgruntled constituent of the ruling coalition.

Both coalitions offer no common ideological or policy foundation but are based on political opportunism. The ruling coalition is focused on keeping the CPN-UML, which emerged as the largest political party in the 2017 election, and its leader Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli at bay.

The number of independent and young professionals who have filed their nominations has risen. With mainstream political parties failing to deliver on their promises and public confidence in them falling, savvy newcomers have entered the fray. The success and popularity of Balendra Shah, the independent mayor of Kathmandu Metropolitan City, in the local election held in May has led to many young professionals throwing their hats in the ring. Rabi Lamichhane, a famed television presenter, has started a new National Independent Party (NIP), which has drawn together several independent candidates.

The chances of the independent candidates are not bright; the two main alliances are still the top dogs. But independent candidates will keep these alliances on their toes.ADVERTISEMENT

Gender parity remains a pipe dream. Less than 10 percent of the 2,494 candidates are women. Women politicians have complained that the leadership ignores women candidates. The nomination of women has further dwindled because of the electoral alliances. This time too, parliament will depend on the selection of women leaders under the proportional representation system (which fills 110 seats in the parliament) to ensure the constitutionally mandated one-third representation of women.

October 9 was the last date for filing nominations, and so the election campaign is yet to begin. Neither has any party published its manifesto yet. However, there are some common issues being raised by candidates. They are mostly related to socio-political and economic issues.

There has been a resurgence in the call to reinstate Nepal as a Hindu state. The RPP has consistently led these calls since Nepal became a secular state in 2007. The party became the fourth-largest party in the constituent assembly elections in 2008. However, its vote share has fallen in succeeding elections. In the last federal elections in 2017, the RPP received only 2 percent of the votes. The party aims to benefit from the increasing enthusiasm for a Hindu state. Its larger coalition partner, the CPN-UML, has not publicly called for the restoration of a Hindu state but Oli merged religion with nationalist sentiment and is eagerly courting the Hindu vote.

Another major issue is the Citizenship Bill. The politics behind the failure of President Bidhya Devi Bhandari to promulgate the bill has become a bigger issue than its contents. The proposed legislation discriminates against women, among others. Bhandari, who was a senior leader of the CPN-UML prior to becoming the president, went against the constitution and did not promulgate the citizenship bill. The ruling coalition is citing the president’s unconstitutional blocking of the bill and former Prime Minister Oli’s twin attempt to dissolve parliament to project itself as the upholder of Nepal’s democracy.

Although the presence of the U.S. and China in Nepal has been a subject of debate and discussion in the country, two U.S.-led initiatives, the $500-million Millennium Challenge Corporation and the State Partnership Program, which evoked much controversy, have not emerged as major election issues so far.

The upcoming elections offer reasons for both hope and despair.

The timely elections and youth participation bode well for electoral democracy in Nepal. Yet political leaders and parties remain the same, and offer little hope that they will be better stakeholders of democracy or progress after the elections.

Also, it is likely that no party will win an outright majority. Coalitions will form, but it would be foolhardy to assume that the electoral alliance will also be the ruling alliance.

OP-EDs and Columns

Implications of India’s Agnipath Scheme for Recruitment of Soldiers for Nepal’s Gurkhas

SANTOSH Sharma Poudel

The column originally appeared in The Diplomat on 14 September 2022. Please read the original article here.

On June 14, India announced the Agnipath Scheme, a new model for recruitment into the Indian military. Under the scheme around 46,000 youth between 17.5 and 21 years of age will be recruited for service for a period of four years. A quarter of these recruits will be retained at the end of this period, while the rest will receive a severance package of approximately $15,000 and return to civilian life.

The goal of the Agnipath scheme is to make the Indian military “leaner, fitter and more youthful.” It is expected to cut ballooning salary payments and pension costs, which could be used to modernize the military. Despite countrywide protests India has moved ahead to recruit under the new scheme.

Upon announcing the scheme, the Indian Army wrote to Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, seeking approval to recruit Nepali nationals under the new plan. India’s Ministry of External Affairs confirmed that there would be no exception for Nepali Gurkhas.

Recruitment under the Agnipath scheme was to start on August 25 in Butwal and September 1 in Dharan in Nepal. However, the Nepali government halted recruitment.

Impressed by the valor displayed by Nepali Gurkha soldiers in the Anglo-Nepal War, the British East India Company started recruiting Nepali soldiers into a Gurkha regiment in 1815. Upon Indian independence, India, Nepal, and the British government signed a tripartite agreement whereby India would continue to recruit Gurkhas from Nepal.

Under the agreement, the countries would form exclusive Gurkha regiments, and recruits will be eligible for pensions. Currently, 34,000 Nepalis serve in the Indian Army, and 122,000 pensioners reside in Nepal. Cumulatively, they bring in $620 million (compared to Nepal’s defense budget of $420 million).

The recruitment of Nepali nationals in the Indian Army (and the British Army) is a contentious issue in Nepal. Some are opposed to it. Stopping the recruitment of Nepali soldiers in foreign militaries was one of the 40 demands raised by the Nepali Maoists when they started their 10-year armed insurgency. Even as recently as 2020, the Nepali government under Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli termed the 1947 tripartite agreement “redundant” and officially proposed its review, which the U.K. government declined.

Nepali nationals are raising several questions relating to the Agnipath scheme.

First, the scheme sidesteps the 1947 tripartite agreement. Although New Delhi has not rescinded the agreement per se it has been consistently stretching its understanding of the pact’s terms. The agreement provided a separate regiment of Nepali soldiers in the Indian Army and made provision for pensions. However, over time the Gurkha regiments in the Indian Army comprise fewer Nepali. They are now 60 percent Nepali, while the rest are ethnic Nepalis from various parts of India. The Agnipath scheme erases the pretense of a distinct Gurkha regiment, as all recruits will be Agniveers. The Agnipath scheme has direct bearing on Nepal and Nepali recruits. Yet India hardly consulted the Nepali government while devising the plan. It only sought Nepal’s approval after it had announced the scheme.

New Delhi often touts its “neighborhood first” policy. But it is increasingly taking Nepal for granted.

Second, retired and aspiring Gurkha soldiers in Nepal have criticized the short-term of the service under the Angipath scheme. For a long time, recruitment in the British or Indian Army was seen in Nepal as an economically secure job with high social status. Agnipath’s terms neither provide a long-term job nor financial security. Indian Agniveers will have priority access to jobs in government and elsewhere after four years. The Nepali government is unlikely to be able to provide such preference. On the contrary, “retired” Agniveers may not be able to join some government services or security forces because of their age upon completing four years of service.

Third, there are lingering concerns about rehabilitating the young “retirees” (who will be 22-23 years) into society. It will be a highly-trained and energetic cohort, potentially struggling to find a job or pay in Nepal. Therefore, there are risks of some of them joining armed groups operating in Nepal. After the Maoist insurgency was over, Nepal struggled to integrate the Maoist guerillas into society.

In addition, some foreign countries could take advantage of the trained forces for covert activities within Nepal. It could embroil Nepal further into the geostrategic nightmare, which could spiral out of control.

Gurkhas have a proud tradition of serving bravely and loyally in the Indian Army. The military of the two countries shares a close bond. As a result, the Chief of the Indian Army is accorded the status of an honorary chief in the Nepali Army and vice versa. Gurkha soldiers are a vital component of this special relationship.

In this context, many expected Nepal and India to have frank discussions on the issue and reach an agreement during the five-day visit of Indian Army General Manoj Pande earlier this month. However, the issue made no headway during his visit. Pande did not raise the matter during his meeting with Nepali Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba. Deuba’s foreign adviser Arun Subdei said Nepal is engaging India at diplomatic and political levels on the issue.

Going forward, Nepal has three options.

Firstly, it could argue that the relevance of the tripartite agreement is over and hence, seek a new form of negotiation with India at the bilateral level and halt the recruitment until a deal is reached. Secondly, it could approve recruitment under the Agnipath scheme. Finally, it could permanently stop all forms of recruitment of Nepalis into foreign militaries.

There is a need for extensive consultation within parties and across parties regarding these options. There are differing views even within parties, let alone the ruling coalition. Therefore, Nepal needs an extensive national debate on the conditions under which Nepal should allow its nationals to be recruited into a foreign military, if at all.

This affects the long-term security of Nepal and Indo-Nepal relations, and Kathmandu should not rush to a decision. With elections due in two months, the current government is unlikely to decide one way or the other. But the onus will likely be on the current top leadership even after the election.