It’s Time to Tweak the Nuclear Policy

Published in Hindustan Times on May 15, 2023

India’s nuclear tests on May 11 and 13, 1998, stunned the world. This was not the first; in 1974, India had tested but called it a peaceful nuclear explosion (PNE). This time, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee declared that India was now a nuclear-weapon-state. Addressing parliament on the subject on May 27, he also placed a paper – “Evolution of India’s Nuclear Policy” – that provided the rationale for the tests and spelt out the elements of India’s doctrine that defined India as a reluctant but responsible nuclear power.

When India refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968, its “nuclear option” was born. In subsequent decades, preserving the option became the primary political and diplomatic objective. Through more than three decades of domestic political changes, policy continuity was sustained.

Meanwhile, Pakistan pushed ahead with its programme and by early 1980s, it was enriching uranium at Kahuta and by late 1980s, had weaponised its deterrent with Chinese help. As the frontline state in the United States’ covert war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, Pakistan managed to make the U.S. turn a blind eye to its nuclear developments.

There was a growing realisation that given technological advances since the 1974 PNE, the “nuclear option” could no longer remain viable and needed to be exercised. Post Cold War global developments with tightening dual-use export controls were also squeezing the Indian option. In 1995, the NPT was extended into perpetuity, freezing a nuclear order that India had long considered arbitrary and discriminatory. Negotiations on a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) began in 1994 with the Clinton administration pushing to complete it in 1996.

In 1995, France and China were still undertaking tests to validate designs and acquire data that would help sustain their capabilities with ‘zero-yield’ tests in their laboratories. Prime Minister Narsimha Rao gave the green light for tests and preparatory work began at Pokhran. In early December, days before the tests were scheduled, U.S. satellites picked up imagery of activity at Pokhran. The tests were postponed till after the general elections and meanwhile, Indian stand on the CTBT negotiations hardened.

Prime Minister Vajpayee toyed with the idea of the tests in 1996 but decided against it as his tenure was a mere 13 days. The next opportunity arose when he became PM again in 1998, and the die was cast.

The 1998 declaration of India as a nuclear-weapon-state marked a decisive break. It generated its own challenges, both domestic and external. A new kind of policy continuity was crafted. Domestically, it related to the nuclear doctrine and the configuration of the nuclear arsenal into the defence and decision-making structures. Externally, it was to gain acceptance as a responsible nuclear power and second, to stabilise deterrence relations with India’s adversaries.

After 25 years, the domestic challenge is still a work in progress. To maintain a credible minimum deterrent, a nuclear triad was considered necessary. The land-based missile force has now inducted Agni IV with an estimated range of 3500 kms. Agni V and Agni VI are expected to extend the ranges to beyond 6000 kms. The nuclear submarine programme has made slow progress with Arihant having undertaken its firs patrol last year. However, it currently carries K-15 (Sagarika) missile that has a limited range of 700 kms. Longer range missiles are under development.

Though India has no intention of embarking on a nuclear arms race with any other country, it must factor in technological developments that can have an impact on the credibility of its deterrent. Increasing use of dual use systems like hypersonics and cruise missiles, conventional precision global strike weapons blur the dividing line between nuclear and conventional systems. Digitisation renders both early warning systems and command and control systems vulnerable to counter-space and offensive cyber action.

These developments have led to questions as to how to define the ‘minimum’ and whether the no-first-use policy needs review. Some critics point to Kargil in 1999 and the Mumbai attacks in 2008 as evidence of failure of nuclear deterrence and would advocate a more robust posture. However, such criticism is ill founded. Indian doctrine is intended to deter threat and use of nuclear weapons. Dealing with Kargil-type attacks or terrorist strikes requires building conventional and intelligence capabilities that can offer a range of response options.

The external diplomatic challenge of gaining acceptance as a responsible nuclear power has been achieved in great measure. The Vajpayee government was proactive in reaching out to key countries, particularly the U.S. since it had taken the lead in condemning the tests and calling for sanctions.

The dialogue between Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh between 1998 and 2000 remains the most intense phase of bilateral engagement with 18 rounds of talks in 24 months. It remained inconclusive in not meeting either side’s stated objectives; yet, it was immensely productive in clearing the path towards the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership and eventually the India-U.S. Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement following the exceptional waiver by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 2008 – another milestone that completes 15 years in 2023. The NSG waiver legitimised India’s civilian nuclear trade and has enabled over a dozen cooperation agreements to be concluded.

This has been possible because the post-1998 policy too has been marked by a similar continuity that characterised it in its early years. Today, changing geopolitics has revived rivalries among major nuclear powers even as the geopolitical centre of gravity has shifted from Euro-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific. Navigating these challenges may need policy adjustments that will be strengthened by consensus and continuity.


A Ground View of the Indian Space Policy 2023

Published in the Hindu on May 11, 2023

On April 20 this year, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) released the Indian Space Policy 2023 that had been in the works for some years. The document has been received positively by industry; however, it needs to be followed up with suitable legislation, accompanied by clear rules and regulations. Just preceding this, this writer wrote the article, “Awaiting lift-off into the Second Space Age” (April 10, 2023), which said that India’s modest entry into the First Space Age followed by its many gains should be used to help the country tap the vast potential in the Second Space Age.

Until the early 1990s, India’s space industry and space economy was defined by ISRO. Private sector involvement was limited to building to ISRO designs and specifications. The Second Space Age began with the licensing of private TV channels, the explosive growth of the internet, mobile telephony, and the emergence of the smartphone. Today, while ISRO’s budget is approx. $1.6 billion, India’s space economy is over $9.6 billion. Broadband, OTT and 5G promise a double-digit annual growth in satellite-based services. It is estimated that with an enabling environment, the Indian space industry could grow by 2030 to $60 billion, directly creating more than 2 lakh jobs.

Yet, it is the enabling policy environment that has proved elusive. The first SATCOM policy was introduced in 1997. It contained guidelines for foreign direct investment (FDI) in the satellite industry that were subsequently further liberalised but never generated much enthusiasm. Today, more than half the transponders beaming TV signals into Indian homes are hosted on foreign satellites resulting in an annual outflow of over half a billion dollars.

A remote sensing data policy was introduced in 2001, which was amended in 2011; in 2016, it was replaced by a National Geospatial Policy that has been further liberalised in 2022. Yet, Indian users including the security and defence agencies spend nearly a billion dollars annually to procure earth observation data and imagery from foreign sources.

To streamline matters, a draft Space Activities Bill was brought out in 2017 and went through a long consultative process. It lapsed in 2019 with the outgoing Lok Sabha. The government was expected to introduce a new bill by 2021 but appears to have contented itself with the new policy statement.

What is different

To be fair, the Indian Space Policy 2023 is qualitatively different from previous efforts. It is a short 11-page document, which includes three pages devoted to definitions and abbreviations. The Vision is to “enable, encourage and develop a flourishing commercial presence in space” that suggests an acceptance that the private sector is a critical stakeholder in the entire value chain of the space economy. It makes five key points. It defines its role in India’s “socio-economic development and security, protection of environment and lives, pursuing peaceful exploration of outer space, stimulation of public awareness and scientific quest.”  

First, this is the only reference to ‘security’ in the document, making it clear that the focus is on civilian and peaceful applications. Considering that space-based intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance, communication, positioning, and navigation capabilities are increasingly seen as mission critical by the defence services, that India conducted a successful A-SAT (anti-satellite) direct ascent test in March 2019, and, in the same year set up the Defence Space Agency and the Defence Space Research Organisation, it is reasonable to infer that a defence-oriented space security policy will be a separate document. The United States puts out a space policy under the aegis of the White House Office of the Science and Technology Policy, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Departments of Commerce and Transportation while the Department of Defence and the Director of National Intelligence are responsible for the space security strategy.

Second, the policy lays out a strategy and then spells out the roles of Department of Space, ISRO, Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe) set up in 2020, and New Space India Ltd (NSIL), a public sector undertaking set up in 2019 under the Department of Space as the commercial arm of ISRO to replace the now defunct Antrix.

Third, it states that ISRO will “transition out of the existing practice of being present in the manufacturing of operational space systems. Hereafter, mature systems shall be transferred to industries for commercial exploitation. ISRO shall focus on R&D in advanced technology, proving newer systems and realisation of space objects for meeting national prerogatives.” Another of ISRO’s tasks in the new Policy is to “share technologies, products, processes and best practices with NGEs (non-government entities) and/or Government companies.” This implies that ISRO will now use its biggest asset, its qualified and talented manpower to concentrate on cutting edge R&D and long-term projects like Chandrayaan and Gaganyaan.

As ISRO’s commercial arms, NSIL will become the interface for interacting with the industry, undertake commercial negotiations and provide handholding support to ensure smooth and efficient transfer of technologies.

Private sector role

Fourth, the NGEs (this includes the private sector) are “allowed to undertake end-to-end activities in the space sector through establishment and operation of space objects, ground-based assets and related services, such as communication, remote sensing, navigation, etc”. Satellites could be self-owned, procured or leased; communication services could be over India or outside; and remote sensing data could be disseminated in India or abroad. NGEs can design and operate launch vehicles for space transportation and establish their own infrastructure. NGEs can now make filings with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and engage in commercial recovery of asteroid resources. In short, the entire gamut of space activities is now open to the private sector. Security agencies can task NGEs for procuring tailor made solutions to address specific requirements.

The activities of the NGEs will be in keeping with guidelines and regulation to be issued by IN-SPACe. It is expected to act as the single window agency for authorising space activities “by government entities and NGEs,” in keeping with safety, security, international obligations and overall national interests.

Finally, IN-SPACe is expected to create and “stable and predictable regulatory framework” that will ensure a level playing field for the NGEs. It will act as a promoter by setting up industry clusters and as the regulator, issue guidelines on liability issues.  

The gaps

The policy sets out an ambitious role for IN-SPACe but provides no timeframe for the necessary steps ahead. Neither is there an indicative timeline for ISRO’s transitioning out of its current practices nor is there a schedule for IN-SPACe to create the regulatory framework. The policy framework envisaged will need clear rules and regulations pertaining to FDI and licensing, government procurement to sustain the new space start-ups, liability in case of violations and an appellate framework for dispute settlement.

A regulatory body needs legislative authority. The Reserve Bank of India was set up by the 1934 RBI Act, SEBI by the 1992 SEBI Act, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) by the 1997 TRAI Act. IN-SPACe is expected to authorise space activities for all, both government and non-government entities. Currently, its position is ambiguous as it functions under the purview of the Department of Space. The Secretary (Space) is also Chairman of ISRO, the government entity to be regulated by IN-SPACe.

The Space Policy 2023 is a forward-looking document reflecting good intentions and a vision. But it is not enough. What is urgently needed is a timeframe to provide the necessary legal framework to translate this vision into reality, to successfully launch India into the Second Space Age. 


Piecing Together the History of India’s Nuclear Journey

(Review: Ploughshares and Swords by Jayita Sarkar)

Published in The Wire on April 16, 2023

India’s nuclear programme has received a fair amount of scholarship in the last two decades. Yet, the majority of it suffers from a common weakness – the attempt to fit it into a Western narrative, perhaps to make it more easily understandable to Western audiences or even to Indian scholars who are reared on a diet of western IR theories. A key reason is that there is little written by the central actors themselves, the dilemmas and challenges they faced, as well as the economic and political compulsions under which they had to address the challenges and resolve the dilemmas. 

Dr. Jayita Sarkar’s Ploughshares and Swords is a welcome addition that mines a rich seam of information, especially the linkages between the nuclear and space programmes during the late 1960s and early 1970s, not hitherto explored, though it also suffers from the same weakness when it seeks to impose a structural framework on the sequence of events.

The title – Ploughshares and Swords, is a good window into Dr Sarkar’s approach by emphasising the dual use character of both nuclear and space technologies. However, this duality dilemma was not new for the Indian scientists. Indian scientists like Homi Bhabha, Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, K. S. Krishnan and Vikram Sarabhai had studied abroad and rubbed shoulders with the global scientific elite.

In fact, it was present even for the scientists involved with the Manhattan project. The destructive character of the nuclear weapons coupled with the seductive promise of understanding the nature and structure of the world was apparent to the scientists as they wrestled with their political choices, determined in no small manner by how close they remained to Los Alamos and the corridors of power.

The secrecy surrounding the Manhattan project also led to the first betrayals. In the early 1940s, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was a U.S. ally and partner. Yet, ideological rivalries prevented sharing of information. Klaus Fuchs was an unlikely spy. A German refugee who fled to U.K. and then to the U.S. passed on key design elements of the Fat Man (the implosion type plutonium device dropped over Nagasaki) because he felt that the U.S. and the U.K. were treating their ally unfairly. There were others too – Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Ted Hall, David Greenglass, Morris Cohen, and their inputs helped the Soviet programme catch up with the U.S. in both, the fission and fusion devices. As they stated during their trials, their betrayal was not for financial reasons; it was their way of resolving the nuclear dilemma in their moral universe. Ideological rivalry however was not the only driving force.

Controlling access to nuclear science and technology became a key U.S. objective and in 1946, the U.S. passed the Atomic Energy (McMohan) Act restricting access to nuclear information and handing over security at nuclear facilities to the FBI. Even the British scientists found themselves excluded. They proceeded to set up their own nuclear reactor and reprocessing unit to produce plutonium. Since the U.S. test site was unavailable and Canada seen as too risky, the islands in northwest Australia was the site chosen for their first test in 1952.

Yet, the U.S. also came up with the Atoms for Peace initiative in 1953 where the dilemma was sought to be resolved by transforming this threat to mankind by turning it into a beneficial technology, accessible to all. In 1957, this initiative led to the establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency, as a vehicle to promote international cooperation for peaceful applications of nuclear science and technology. It took a decade when its role was transformed into becoming the verification arm of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).

While political leaders enjoy agency, it is always constrained, partly by domestic politics and partly by prevailing global events and tides. It is therefore difficult to look at specific decisions and label them as examples of ‘ploughshares’ or ‘swords’ and that analyse personalities accordingly. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru refrained from openly going down the weapons route but strongly supported the creation of the infrastructure that eventually made it possible. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi undertook an underground test in 1974 but remained content with describing it as a Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE). Yet, in public perception, the two are seen very differently. This is what makes the Indian nuclear story so different and unique.

Attempts to fit decisions into categories – “the leaders of the nuclear program saw in nuclear fission the possibility to augment geopolitical goals of the territorial state as well as the technopolitical goals of the developmentalist state, leading to a larger dual-use enterprise simultaneously serving military and civilian ends,” are inherently problematic and always ex-post facto. It can enable Dr Sarkar to question which decisions are ‘ploughshares’ and which decisions are ‘swords’; the question is merely rhetorical because reality seldom comes in black and white, mostly it is in shades of grey. To describe the struggles of India’s nuclear and space programmes as ‘an embodiment of the notion of a revisionist post-colonial modernity through a “logic of self-differentiation” and improvisation’ (Dr Sarkar quoting Sudipta Kaviraj) only sounds glib.

The strength of Dr Sarkar’s book lies in exploring the diplomacy undertaken by India with the U.S., France, and the USSR during the decade of 1950s and 1960s, before the two nuclear superpowers found common cause in promoting the goal of non-proliferation. The close links between the scientists and diplomats as they engaged with their counterparts in Washington, Moscow, Paris, and Geneva is a lesson that was lost sight of in following decades and only got revived after 1998. During the 1970s and 1980s as the Cold War came to India’s doorstep, first with the 1971 crisis that led to the creation of Bangla Desh and the war with Pakistan and then the 1979 Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the gap between diplomatic rhetoric and national security interests grew. This is an issue that deserves greater academic scrutiny.

The linkages between the nascent space programme and the Department of Atomic Energy have never been written about in such detail. Dr Sarkar also dispels the idea that Dr Vikram Sarabhai was not as supportive of an underground test explosion as his predecessor Dr Bhabha had been. The impact of the Chinese nuclear test in 1964, both in India and in the U.S. and its impact on nuclear diplomacy provides political insights without the distraction of frameworks.

There are interesting questions that remains unexplored – if India’s plutonium reprocessing had begun in 1964, why did India not test before 1967 given that India was an active participant in the negotiations in Geneva on the NPT where the date of 1 January 1967 was being presented as the NPT’s cut-off date between the nuclear-weapon-states and the non-nuclear-weapon-states. Given that Indian scientists and diplomats had foreseen the political ramifications of safeguards and opposed it, why did the thought of testing not get explored? Were the limitations technical or political or both?

Another interesting question that could do with more study is Mrs Gandhi’s decision to test in 1974. Dr Sarkar does well to dispel the myth that the decision was a distraction from her domestic political troubles, by pointing out that the decision was taken in 1972 when she enjoyed peak popularity. What is not adequately explored is the decision to call it a PNE. In hindsight, it is clear that it only kept India in limbo, safeguarding its nuclear option. Though this is also something that makes India’s nuclear odyssey sui-generis.

This bridge was crossed in 1998 when two announcements were made, one relating to having conducted the nuclear weapon states and the second that India was a nuclear-weapon-state.

The Indian nuclear jigsaw puzzle is still incomplete but Dr Sarkar has successfully added many small and necessary pieces to provide greater content and give it greater shape.


Awaiting Lift-off into the Second Space Age

Published in the Hindu on April 10, 2023

The Space Age began in 1957 with the launch of satellite Sputnik 1 and in 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space. Neil Armstrong made history by walking on the moon in 1969. The First Space Age became reality.

Today, the Second Space Age is here. Though there is no precise date for its beginning, the contrast in today’s space domain is stark. Between the 1950s to 1991, a period dominated by the Cold War, 60 to 120 space launches took place annually and 93% of these were by the United States and the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) governments. Three decades later, not only are there many more actors in the space scene, but a majority are also private companies. Last year, there were 180 rocket/space launches, 61 by Elon Musk’s Space X; 90% of global space launches since 2020 are by and for the private sector.

India’s space journey begins

India made a modest entry into the First Space Age in the 1960s. The first sounding rocket, a U.S. supplied Nike-Apache, was launched at Thumba (Kerala) in 1963 and in 1969, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was set up. It has come a long way since, with over 15000 employees and an annual budget between Rs 12000 crores-14000 crores in recent years. Through these decades, it has sought to prioritise societal objectives and benefits.

Its first major project was Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) that involved leasing a U.S. satellite in 1975-76 for educational outreach across 2400 villages covering five million people. Satellite technology was a new mass communication tool. This led to the INSAT series in 1980s, followed by GSAT, that provided the backbone for the country’s tele-communication and broadcasting infrastructure.

This was followed by remote sensing capability development. The use of space-based imagery for weather forecasting, resource mapping of forests, analysing agricultural yields, groundwater and watersheds, gradually expanded to cover fisheries and urban management. Following the Indian Remote Sensing programme, this plan grew with the Oceansat and Cartosat series.

The field of satellite-aided navigation emerged later. It began with GAGAN, a joint project between ISRO and the Airports Authority of India, to augment the Global Positioning System (GPS) coverage of the region, to improve air traffic management over the Indian airspace. This has now been expanded to Navigation with Indian Constellation (Nav-IC).

In parallel came the development of satellite launch capabilities. Beginning with SLV-1 in the 1980s, it took a decade before ISRO developed the PSLV series that has become its workhorse with over 50 successful launches.

Space potential

The origins of the Second Space Age can be traced to the Internet. In India, the process began accelerating as 1990s saw the emergence of private TV channels, together with cable TV followed by direct-to-home transmissions. The demanded for satellite transponders and ground-based services exploded. Today, more than half the transponders beaming into Indian homes are on foreign satellites.

The last fifteen years witnessed another transformation and this time India was in lock-step with the developed world. The age of mobile telephony, followed by smart phones has shown the world what a data-hungry and data-rich society India is. Broadband, OTT and now 5G promise a double-digit annual growth in demand for satellite-based services.

In 2020, the global space economy was estimated at $450 billion, growing to $600 billion by 2025. The Indian space economy, estimated at $9.6 billion in 2020, is expected to be $13 billion by 2025. However, the potential is much greater with an enabling policy and regulatory environment. The Indian space industry could easily exceed $60 billion by 2030, directly creating more than two lakh jobs.

The reason is that in terms of the end-user revenue, only one-fifth is generated by the government. Media and entertainment account for 26% of India’s space economy with consumer and retail services accounting for another 21%. In terms of space activities, downstream activities like satellite services and associated ground segment are dominant accounting for over 70% of India’s space economy with upstream activities of satellite manufacturing and launch services contributing the smaller share. A similar trend can be seen in developed countries. The reason is that India has been an early adopter of digital app-based services.

The growing role of the private sector is also evident in the numbers and ownership of satellites. According to the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), there are 8261 satellites in orbit, of which nearly 5000 are active. Till 2010, about 60 to 100 satellites were launched annually. The pace picked up in recent years. In 2020, 1283 satellites were launched into space. Today, Starlink operates a constellation of 3500 satellites and has a million paying customers. Both Starlink and One Web (in which Airtel has a stake) project constellations of 40000 satellites each. And Jeff Bezos of Amazon has launched Project Kuiper to bring low-latency broadband connectivity around the globe. How this domain will be regulated is a separate challenge but this provides a glimpse of the scope of expansion.

Creating an enabling environment

The Indian private sector is responding to the demands of the Second Space Age. From less than a dozen space start-ups five years ago, today there are a over a hundred. The pace of investment is growing. From $3 million in 2018, it doubled in 2019 and crossed $65 million in 2021. The sector is poised for take-off; as a transformative growth multiplier like the IT industry did for the national economy in the 1990s.

Today, ISRO manages four to five launches annually. It manages 53 operational satellites – 21 for communication, 21 for earth observation, 8 for navigation and the remaining are scientific experimental satellites (China operates 541). In addition, ISRO has missions like Chandrayaan, Mangalyaan and Gaganyaan (manned space mission).

ISRO has always been an open organisation that has worked closely with the Indian private sector. However, for some private sector companies, space technology related work is a small part of their revenue stream. They were content as vendors, producing to defined specs and designs.

The start-ups are different. Their revenue stream depends on space related activities and they need a different relationship with ISRO and government. ISRO today is the operator, user, service provider, licensor, rule maker and now also an incubator. It has steered India through the First Space Age and now it needs to do what it can do best within its resources and its high-quality manpower – research.

To be fair, the government has been mulling over this. In 2017, the government introduced the first draft Space Activities Bill in Parliament but it lapsed in 2019. There has been talk of commercialising the PSLV and SSLV launch services and New Space India Ltd (NSIL) was set up to replace Antrix. The Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe) was set up in 2020 as a single-window-clearance for the private sector. However, it is unclear as to whether it will emerge as the licensing authority or a regulator. An Indian Space Association (ISpA) was created as an industry association.

In recent years, a series of policy papers have been circulated for discussion – a satcom/telecom policy, an earth observation policy and an foreign direct investment policy. These have served a purpose. What is needed now is legislation (a Space Activities Act). This provides the legal grounding that policy papers lack; helps set up a regulatory authority and create an enabling environment for raising venture capital funding into the Indian space start-up industry. The window of opportunity for India to join the Second Space Age exists; it should not be lost.


Nepal’s Coalition Politics, A Game Of Musical Chairs

Published in the Hindu on March 4, 2023

Coalition politics in Nepal increasingly resembles the game of musical chairs; in Kathmandu too, it is the same cast of characters who have been taking turns for nearly two decades. The tragedy is that scant attention is paid to critical issues like rising unemployment, growing national indebtedness and development challenges.

A coalition collapses again

The last coalition government, formed in December, after the elections last November, has lasted just two months. It was stitched together by UML leader K. P. Sharma Oli with the idea of breaking away the Maoists by promising the prime-ministership to their leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’.

Mr. Prachanda had formed an alliance with Mr. Oli in 2018 that broke down in 2020 after a series of decisions by Mr. Oli (he was then PM) seeking to marginalise Prachanda and other senior leaders. Later, Prachanda and the Madhav Nepal led breakaway faction of UML, rechristened as the CPN (Unified-Socialist), joined with the Nepali Congress (NC) and formed an electoral alliance in 2022.

The Nepali Congress emerged as the largest party with 89 seats (the House strength is 275) and Maoists were a distant third with 32.  Power-sharing talks collapsed because Prachanda insisted on becoming Prime Minister first. Knowing Prachanda’s weakness, Mr. Oli made him an offer, he could not refuse. On December 26, Mr. Prachanda was sworn in as PM and in return, he assured support to UML for the posts of House Speaker and the President. Six other parties had joined the coalition. These included disparate groups like the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (14 seats) that espouses a pro-monarchy and pro-Hindutva agenda and the newly created Rashtriya Swatantra Party (20 seats) consisting of professionals who professed disenchantment with the rampant opportunism reflected in the traditional Nepali politics. However, both were tempted with offers of Deputy Prime Minister-ships and Prachanda’s cabinet had four deputy PMs, one each from Maoists, UML, RSP and RPP!

Within weeks, Prachanda started chafing as Mr. Oli reverted to his old autocratic ways of calling the shots from behind the scenes. Realising that with Oli nominees as President and Speaker, he could easily be manoeuvred out, Prachanda reached out to the NC. Anticipating this, NC had voted in support of Prachanda in the confidence vote on January 10, announcing that it had done so in the interests of national consensus governance that could provide stability.

Prachanda saw his opportunity to return the favour by espousing the idea of a national consensus presidency and promised support to the NC candidate Ram Chandra Poudel. UML called it a “betrayal” and pulled out of the coalition. However, other than the RPP, the other members of the Oli-led coalition declined to follow, announcing their support for Poudel’s candidature.

Presidential elections

The Election Commission has announced that presidential elections will be held on March 9, followed by elections for the Vice-President on March 17. Since the Code of Conduct will be in effect till March 19, no overt political activity is possible. Given that Mr. Prachanda is now heading a minority government with 16 vacant cabinet positions, power sharing talks will gain momentum though the final outcome will remain a matter of speculation.

Mr. Prachanda has till month end to seek a fresh vote of confidence. Once Mr. Poudel is elected, the NC is likely to throw its weight behind Prachanda. RSP, Janata Samajbadi Party (12 seats), Janmat Party (six seats) and the Nagrik Unmukti Party (three seats), earlier with the Oli coalition have switched their support to Poudel. In addition, NC coalition members Loktantrik Samajbadi Party (four seats), CPN (U-S) (10 seats) and Rashtriya Janamorcha (one seat) will also support Mr. Poudel.

UML has put up former speaker Subhas Nembang as its presidential candidate. The electoral college for these elections is made up of 275 members of the House of Representatives and the 59 members of the National Assembly together with the 550 members of the seven provincial assemblies, with votes being weighted. Given the current assurances of support, Mr. Poudel will win with nearly three-fourths of the electoral college. In the election for the Vice-President,  it appears that the JSP candidate will obtain the coalition backing. 

Prachanda’s real challenge will emerge the following week. Managing negotiations between the competing demands of NC and these seven parties will not be easy. This is his third stint as Prime Minister; his first time in 2008 was the only time he came to power on the basis of his electoral victory but his coalition collapsed in less than a year because he failed to make the transition from being Comrade Prachanda to an elected leader. Both the second and third times have been purely opportunistic gambles of teaming up with Oli and then getting burnt. After the second time, he even naively merged his party with the UML in 2018. Fortunately for him, the Supreme Court annulled the merger in 2021 giving him a political lifeline. However, he candidly admits to being easily tempted.

On the other hand, NC leader Sher Bahadur Deuba, nearly 78 and a five-time PM, is convinced that he should be PM again. Hopefully, the events of the last two months should have a sobering influence on both because while Deuba’s intransigence led to the breakdown of talks in December, Prachanda should realise that his bromance with Oli will always be short lived.

The foreign hand

Since 2008, when Nepal declared a republic, the game of political musical chairs has been a regular phenomenon. In fifteen years, Nepal has had three NC Prime Ministers (G. P. Koirala, Sushil Koirala and Sher Bahadur Deuba twice), two Maoist Prime Ministers (Prachanda, now thrice, and Baburam Bhattarai), three UML Prime Ministers (Madhav Nepal, Jhala Nath Khanal and K. P. Oli twice), and a Chief Justice as caretaker PM in 2013. It is the resulting disenchantment of the electorate that spawned the emergence of new political forces in the 2022 elections.

Normally, it is during these rounds of musical chairs that Nepali politicians start wearing their ‘nationalist’ colours by looking for the convenient scapegoat of the ‘foreign hand.’ While India has often been blamed, China has played a visible hand in seeking to keep a united communist front but failed to find a compromise between Oli’s egoistical tendencies and Prachanda’s opportunistic impulses. 

In recent years, India has retrieved some of the lost ground by focusing on project implementation such as the Jayanagar-Bardibas railway and the Motihari-Amlekhgunj oil pipeline. Power export from Nepal has picked up: the agreement for 364 MW signed in June has yielded export earnings of $60 million in 2022 whilelooking at increasing power transmission on the 400 kV Muzaffarpur-Dhalkebar line to 800 MW. The 900 MW Arun 3 is expected to be operational later in 2023.  

Meanwhile, some of the high-profile infrastructure projects undertaken by China have generated concerns about their economic viability and resulting long term debt implications, a concern shared by other countries in South Asia and beyond.

A good ‘neighbourhood first’ policy for India is to focus on connectivity and development while letting the Nepali politicians continue with their game of ‘musical chairs.’