KATHMANDU, Nepal — Nepal’s Parliament on Sunday elected K.P. Sharma Oli, the leader of a moderate Communist party, as prime minister, as the Himalayan country struggles to navigate unrest over its new Constitution and tension with neighboring India.
Politics in Nepal have been upended by protests by ethnic Madhesi groups in the south who are demanding revisions to the Constitution. India, which has close cultural ties with the Madhesis, is blamed for preventing fuel tankers from crossing its border into Nepal, leading to shortages of gasoline, diesel fuel and cooking gas.
Compared with his predecessor, Sushil Koirala of the governing Nepali Congress party, Mr. Oli has articulated a tougher line toward India, telling the Indo-Asian News Service that “we are very concerned with the cracks in the relationship that are visible.” He is also seen as less sympathetic toward the Madhesi parties agitating for revisions to the Constitution.
The choice of Mr. Oli reflects Nepalese frustration with India’s attempts to influence the country’s constitutional process, said Kanak Mani Dixit, the founding editor of Himal Southasian magazine.
“Somebody in New Delhi seems to have thought that Nepal is a client state, but they have been forced to think otherwise,” he said. He said he was encouraged to hear that Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India called Mr. Oli to congratulate him “immediately, minutes after the vote.”
The gesture, he said, “indicates that there has been a swift and welcome reconsideration” on the Indian side. One task ahead for Mr. Oli, he said, is to seek more leverage in Nepal’s relations with India, in part by building ties with China, though he added that “a Nepali prime minister can never afford to fiddle too much with India policy.”
Mr. Oli edged out Mr. Koirala by securing the backing of more than a dozen small parties among the 31 represented in Parliament, winning 338 votes against Mr. Koirala’s 249.
Indian officials have denied ordering a blockade, saying the protests by Madhesis were disrupting trade. Nevertheless, restoring fuel supplies will confront Mr. Oli with an urgent challenge, since many Nepalese hope to travel home this month for Dashain, the biggest annual festival for the country’s Hindus.
Mr. Oli’s election could complicate the current friction between Kathmandu and New Delhi. The Indian authorities view him as a crucial advocate of a Constitution they view as flawed. Mr. Oli, for his part, may suspect that India worked behind the scenes to prevent his election, said Prashant Jha, the author of “Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.”
“This is the background of distrust,” he said.
Nepal is also trying to recover from the devastation caused by two earthquakes in April and May, with magnitudes of 7.8 and 7.3.
That crisis prompted Mr. Koirala to sharply accelerate the long-delayed push for a Constitution, arguing that reconstruction required a consensus government. He won praise for that. But the states delineated by the new charter divided territory dominated by Madhesis, diluting the political power of the group.
The new Constitution also compelled Mr. Koirala to step down before the end of his four-year term. Though he initially supported a change of leadership, he refused to support Mr. Oli’s candidacy for prime minister and stepped forward as a candidate himself.
As a young man, Mr. Oli served 14 years in prison for participating in underground activism against one-party rule and feudalism in Nepal, which was then a monarchy. The Jhapa movement, of which he was a leader, carried out killings of “class enemies” in the early 1970s. Mr. Oli’s party has since said that he opposed the use of violence but was overruled by leaders of the movement.
He was released in 1987, when the king relaxed restrictions on political activities.
Nepal’s prime minister occupies the most influential position in the government, eclipsing the mostly ceremonial offices of president and vice president.