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As Nepal heads to polls, Here’s what major parties are saying about foreign policy

While Foreign Affairs May Not Be The Top Priority In Elections, Nepal’s Location, Sandwiched Between Two Asian Giants, Means That It Remains A Significant Undercurrent In Domestic Politics.

From L-R: Puspa Kamal Dahal, K.P. Oli, Sher Bahadur Deuba and Madhav Kumar Nepal. Collage: The Wire

Kathmandu/New Delhi: In two weeks, over 17 million Nepali voters choose their representatives in the federal and provincial assemblies. It marks a momentous milestone in Nepal’s parliamentary democracy, as these will be the first polls to be held after the entire five-year tenure.

While foreign affairs may not be the top priority in elections, Nepal’s location, sandwiched between two Asian giants, means that it remains a significant undercurrent in domestic politics.

In the last elections in 2017, the Left alliance of Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist) (CPN-UML) and the Maoist Centre brought K.P. Oli back as prime minister with a big majority. According to analysts, Oli’s victory was based on a hardline nationalist platform during the 2017 election campaign that came against the backdrop of the five-month-long ‘blockade’ at the Indian border in 2015. 

Five years on, the 2022 general elections are being held amidst a new landscape in Nepal’s foreign policy terrain.

After his 2017 victory, Oli began his term with an outreach from New Delhi. But by 2020, relations dipped to a nadir after the Oli government issued a new political map, which included territories – Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura, and Kalapani – controlled by India. This map was subsequently enshrined in the constitution. Later that year, a patch-up between Oli and India began with a much-commented visit of the Indian spy chief to the Nepali capital.

After Oli was voted out by parliament and the Nepali Congress-led coalition came to power, relations smoothened between the two neighbours. In the run-up to his ouster, Oli softened towards New Delhi and made an effort to woo the Hindu vote.

The India-Nepal border. Photo: PTI/Files

A key characteristic of Nepal’s diplomatic terrain has been the deliberate low profile maintained by the India mission in Kathmandu over the last few years. Instead, the Chinese embassy became the most visibly active diplomatic mission, with the Chinese ambassador flitting from meetings with one senior politician to another.

Not surprisingly, the political controversies in the diplomatic universe have shifted from being India-centric to Nepal’s relations with the US, a reflection perhaps of Chinese sensitivities over a larger American footprint in Kathmandu.

A hard-won success of the Deuba government was the ratification of a $500 million infrastructure grant by the US as part of the Millennium Challenge Corporation Nepal Compact. Just as the ruling coalition obtained parliamentary approval in February 2022, police used teargas and water cannon to disperse protestors, who claimed it would undermine Nepali sovereignty.

But, Deuba was forced to withdraw from the US’s Strategic Partnership Program (SPP) under pressure from alliance partners, who claimed it would lure Nepal into a military alliance. China publicly commended the Nepal government for the decision.

The manifestoes of political parties, released last week, do not have any big surprises, cleaving to their traditional outlook on Nepal’s relations with the wider world. 

Nearly all of them refer to the 2015 Nepali constitution’s enshrined principles on conducting international relations for an elected government.

  1. Pursuing an independent foreign policy considering national interest to be of utmost importance, on the basis of the UN Charter, non-alignment, principle of Panchasheel, international law and universal norms, and by remaining active to defend the sovereignty, indivisibility, national independence and national interest. 
  2. Entering into treaties and agreements on the basis of equality and mutual interest, by reviewing past treaties.

Further, under directive principles, the Nepali state has to maintain relations with the outside world “based on sovereign equality, protecting sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national interest of the country, and promoting national prestige in the international community”.

India’s former ambassador to Nepal, Ranjit Rae, indicated that coalition dynamics usually moderate the ideological positions on foreign policy articulated in manifestoes.   

“There is a distinction between what one says in the manifesto and what they do once they are in a coalition government. Because there have to follow the manifesto of the coalition, rather than that of individual parties. Individual parties may have a wish list, but they will have to compromise in a coalition,” Rae told The Wire.

Here is what four major Nepal’s major national political parties presented as their key foreign policy stances in their Nepali-language manifestos.

Nepali Congress (NC)

Nepal’s largest political party, as per membership, leads a five-party coalition to the elections. It had only won 23 direct election seats in the 2017 elections but added 40 more seats under the proportional representation system. Perceived to be close to India, the centrist party’s chances have been buoyed by its performance in the local elections in May, where it received the largest amount of votes. NC is contesting 91 FPTP [first past the post] seats. 

On foreign policy direction

In its election manifesto, the ruling NC has pledged to adopt an independent and balanced foreign policy in line with the United Nations charter, the country’s long-standing non-alignment policy and the principles of Panchsheel. Similarly, the party has opposed joining any military alliances and blocs. Nepali soil will not be allowed to be used against any neighbouring country, the party added.

The document also talks about bolstering regional organisations such as the South Asian Association for Regional Organisation (SAARC) and The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).  

On India

Regarding the border dispute with India, the party specifically highlighted that Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba had taken up the issue with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to New Delhi in April this year.

The party manifesto further added that it would take a decisive step to resolve the existing border disputes with both India and China. There is, however, no separate mention of the new political map that triggered a row with India.

deubaa (1)
Nepal Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Reuters

On China

The NC manifesto mentions that there is a border dispute with China in the Humla district and that it will seek a resolution through diplomatic means.

On the Belt and Road Initiative, NC says it is committed to its implementation based on national necessity and priority, as it was signed with China in 2017 under the NC-led government. 

The NC manifesto states that priority will be given to economic diplomacy with a preference for grants rather than commercial loans. 

What it means: With a public perception of being friendlier to India, NC has tried to straddle the middle path in the manifesto. While the document doesn’t mention the political map, NC voted in favour of the constitutional amendment in 2020, just like all other political parties in Nepal.

The NC has reminded that it led the coalition when Nepal signed the BRI agreement in May 2017. At the same time, it is the only party that has referred to a border dispute with China and reiterated the preference for loans rather than grants. During the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s visit to Kathmandu in March, no new project on BRI was inked.

Nepal’s former ambassador to the US, Suresh Chalise, criticised the NC manifesto for “perplexingly overlooking” the importance of “tourism diplomacy” to stem the loss of revenue while pledging to lessen dependence on remittances. “It places Nepal’s relations with immediate neighbours China and India in the same basket but enigmatically ignores Nepal’s relationship with the United States,” he told The Wire.

Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML)

Nepal’s principal communist opposition party has entered the hustings with a loose alliance with Madheshi and royalist parties. A two-time prime minister, Oli will likely get the top post if the coalition wins.

On foreign policy direction

The main opposition CPN-UML’s election manifesto states party would have an independent and balanced foreign policy with a priority on neighbouring countries. The party has further noted that it would adopt an approach of ‘amity with all, enmity with none, to foster a relationship based on sovereign equality. It also reiterates the constitutional principles for conducting foreign policy.

On China

UML refers to the Transit and Transport Agreement with China and the party’s initiatives to open up more border points with China. 

UML refers to the Indian and Chinese railway projects in the manifesto. The document also promises that the construction of the Birgunj-Kathmandu and Rasuwagadi-Kathmandu railway lines will be initiated. 

On India

It noted that “Nepali territory” at Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura and Kalapani will be protected and added that border disputes will be resolved.

The UML manifesto also stated that all treaties would be reviewed and amended to protect Nepal’s welfare, and new treaties would be signed based on necessity.

What it Means: While the initial years of Oli’s term had a more pronounced “pro-north” lean, IDSA research fellow Nihar Nayak pointed out that there had been an ‘U-turn’ from 2021. “Equidistant policy is the standard declared practice, but operationally, they have engaged with south,” he said.

UML has cited the trade and transit agreement and railway projects with China, but none have been operationalised. The Chinese border points with Nepal, closed for nearly two years due to the earthquake and covid-19 pandemic, have re-opened but keep on closing at frequent intervals for various reasons.

There is also no likelihood of a resolution of the border dispute with India, with New Delhi not showing giving any signal of engagement on the matter besides routine border meeting.

At a rally on November 5, Oli was clearly ready to cash in on the nationalist card, raising the issue of Kalapani and the new political map. “We issued the national map [incorporating the Kalapani area]. The Parliament endorsed it, unanimously. I am here to guarantee that [the area returns to Nepal],” he said.

Nepal’s Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli. Photo: Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar

Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre (CPN-MC)

Maoist Centre, led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, had earlier contested the 2017 elections as a pre-poll alliance with UML, with a near two-thirds majority. But after the Supreme Court dissolved MC’s merger with UML, Dahal joined forces with Nepali Congress and other partners to oust Oli. It will be contesting 48 seats.

On foreign policy direction

The CPN (Maoist Center) has explained in detail in the foreign policy section that looking at the current geopolitical situation, friendly and proximate relationships will be maintained with both neighbours.

Providing a more conceptual view, the Maoist party observed in the manifesto that a “new cold war” was already being felt, and it is a big challenge for Nepal. The country will be freed from all sorts of foreign military activities and will be declared a zone of peace, the manifesto stated. Nepal will not become a part of any bilateral or multilateral military alliances.

On India

The Maoist party has said that open borders with India shall be controlled and regulated. The party has clearly stated that the Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1950, the Tripartite Agreement of 1947, and other treaties related to trade and treaties with India should be reviewed and if necessary cancelled.

The party has also pledged to address the problem of Gorkha soldiers, whose recruitment to the Indian Army was suspended at Kathmandu’s request after the introduction of the Agnipath tour-of-duty scheme. 

What it means: Regulation of open borders and review of the 1950 treaty with India is a long-standing position of the Maoist Centre, which Prachanda had reiterated during his visit to New Delhi earlier this year. The ruling Indian political party, BJP had invited him to India, which was perceived as an outreach from the Indian establishment to keep its options open.

As an ideologically driven party, MC has faced internal dissent in recent months over stances taken by the leadership over foreign policy. The decision to support the parliamentary ratification of the MCC compact in parliament, albeit with an interpretative declaration, led to visible frustration, as the party had earlier threatened to quit the Deuba government over the matter. 

The support of Prachanda had been crucial to the Deuba government’s foreign policy agenda. Therefore, with the MC not in a mood to give support to another controversial US initiative, Nepal had to formally withdraw from the Department of Defense-run Strategic Partnership Program.

Commenting on the importance of the manifesto, former Indian envoy Ranjit Rae pointed out that for communist parties, documents are very important, “as this is the line they disseminate internally and is absorbed by cadres”.

Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Socialist (CPN-US)

Formed in 2021 after a split from CPN-UML, the CPN-US became the fourth-largest political party with 25 seats in the House of Representatives. The party founder, former prime minister Madhav Kumar Nepal, joined hands with the NC-led ruling coalition and is also jumping into the election as part of the pre-poll alliance. It is contesting 20 seats.

Madhav Kumar Nepal. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/De Utudanuki – Trabajo propio CC BY SA 3.0

On foreign policy direction

In its election manifesto, CPN (Unified Socialist), a member of a five-party coalition, says that it wants to establish a cordial relationship with neighbouring countries based on international law, the UN Charter, Panchsheel, and policy of non-interference. Unlike other parties, the party has only a brief section on foreign policy 

What it means: In line with other Left parties, Madhav Kumar Nepal had been the focus of the Chinese ambassador’s meeting to have a unified communist front in Nepal. But, it obviously didn’t work.

Former prime minister Madhav Kumar Nepal had been at the forefront of the faction that had wanted to oust Oli from the party leadership, which led eventually the latter to propose the dissolution of the parliament in December 2020. However, the Kathmandu Post reported that one year later, Madhav Kumar Nepal’s coalition experience has not been smooth.

As a splinter party from CPN-UML, it is expected that Madhav Kumar Nepal’s party largely has a similar ideological position on foreign policy, especially on sovereignty and military alliance. Just like MCC, CPN-US had earlier opposed the MCC compact but changed its mind later. However, it remained opposed to the SPP. 

Incidentally, Nepal had been Oli’s choice for a special envoy to India to discuss the border issue, but it never took off, as per media reports.