New political crisis in Nepal

Print edition : February 26, 2021

Nepali Congress activists in a demonstration against the dissolution of the country's parliament, in Kathmandu on February 1. Photo: PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP

Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli. Photo: Getty Images

Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda”. He is one of the leaders of the Communist Party faction opposed to Oli. Photo: PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP

As Nepal’s ruling Communist Party grapples with a leadership tussle, there are powerful sections within India’s National Democratic Alliance that may want the forces led by the ousted monarchy under the Hindutva umbrella to become a decisive force in the neighbouring country.

NEPAL is in a deep political crisis. Its parliament has been dissolved by Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli. Oli himself has been expelled from his ruling Communist Party of Nepal. The constitutional validity of his act of dissolving the parliament has been challenged in the Supreme Court. The Election Commission has refused to recognise the split in the ruling party between the factions of the Prime Minister and his detractors led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda” and Madhav Kumar “Nepal” along with other senior leaders. No one is certain if the Supreme Court will restore the dissolved parliament or elections will be held for a new one in April-May 2021, as announced by the Prime Minister. Nepali streets are overcrowded by demonstrations by political parties protesting against the Prime Minister’s decision. All this in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and post-earthquake reconstruction in Nepal.

Characteristic Turbulence and Instability

Nepal, however, is not new to such crises. Its polity is characterised by instability and turbulence. Since the overthrow of the archaic, more than 100 years old Rana system in 1951, Nepal has not had any government or a legislature—elected or nominated—completing its full term in office. The roots of this instability may be traced to four factors. First, a fragmented polity where no political party is without internal factions and where leadership is in the full control of its cadres. Second, Nepal’s inherently weak and fragile constitutional and political institutions suffering from political cronyism, patronage and lack of experience. Third, a highly ambitious and intensely power-driven political leadership which does not want to share power. And finally, the interfering role of external stakeholders, particularly immediate neighbours. The fragility of power-sharing arrangements in Nepal has been the most critical of these factors. Since the emergence of a federal, democratic republic agenda to mainstream the Maoist rebellion in 2006, none of the coalitions have remained stable. Following the adoption of a new Constitution for a “New Nepal”, the power-sharing arrangements worked out between Sushil Koirala of the Nepali Congress (NC) and Oli (2015), Prachanda and Deuba of the NC (2017-18) and Oli and Prachanda of the ruling Communist Party of Nepal (2020), broke down.
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The present crisis is a concoction of all these four factors. While dissolving the parliament, Oli confessed that he was doing so as his senior colleagues in the party were not allowing him to govern smoothly. His action has been in clear violation of the letter and spirit of the Constitution. There is no provision for the Prime Minister to dissolve the parliament in this manner. Ironically, Oli was, along with Prachanda and other leaders, one of the key players in framing the new Constitution in order to ensure political stability and avoid repeated election expenses and political hassles. The Constitution, accordingly, barred a no-confidence vote against a Prime Minister for the first two and a half years of his/her tenure. After that period, a no-confidence vote would be conditional on the election of a successor from within the same parliament.

The faction of the ruling party led by Prachanda and Nepal has accused Oli of refusing to honour the power-sharing arrangement that required him to vacate one of the two top positions – Prime Minister and president of the party. Oli is also charged with concentrating excessive powers in his hands, appointing his cronies to various constitutional and critical decision-making bodies, encouraging corruption in the administration and running an inept and inefficient governance in a Nepal reeling under the earthquake aftermath and the pandemic.

On earlier occasions, Oli dragged India’s name in his intra-party struggle for power. But in the latest attempt, he has refrained from doing so, blaming entirely his senior pa rty colleagues. China has, however, jumped into the Nepali domestic turmoil in a big way. First, the Chinese Ambassador in Nepal, Hou Yanki, tried her best to patch up the differences between Oli and his detractors in order to keep the Communist Party of Nepal stable and united. As she failed, a four-member high-powered delegation, led by Guo Yezhou, vice president of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Division, visited Nepal for the same purpose in the last week of December. This delegation also failed to produce the desired results. This underlines the deep stakes that China has in Nepal’s internal political order and the dominance of the Communist Party. The new avatar of this party had come into being with Chinese support in order to attain unity between the Maoists and the United Marxist Leninist (UML) Communist Party. This party swept the elections of 2017-18 to assume power.

New Forces, New Equations

The present crisis has opened up political space and encouraged discarded political forces to re-emerge to claim a share in the power structure. Notable among them is the combination of Hindutva and the overthrown monarchy. This combination has been staging massive demonstrations all over Nepal, including in Kathmandu, to demand revival of the monarchy and creation of a Hindu state. A desperate Oli may lean towards these forces in his efforts to survive. Oli’s visit to Pashupati Nath temple and his performing a special pooja there on January 16—days after he was expelled from his party—may be seen as a subtle hand-waving towards the Hindutva forces. Oli has also been exploring new equations within the opposition Nepali Congress as the Nepali media have brought out stories of his growing bonhomie with the NC leader Sher Bahadur Deuba. But Oli’s chances of success with the NC may be thin as Deuba’s leadership in the party is being seriously questioned. The NC has to regroup itself into a united force in order to cope with the unfolding political dynamics.
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There is persisting ambiguity about the real strength of the warring factions in the ruling Communist Party as the party’s split is still a work in progress and has to be carried to the seven Provincial Assemblies and district- and village-level organisations. Opposition to Oli is keeping the Prachanda-Nepal faction united for the time being, but this anti-Oli faction is also inherently weak. The former Maoists and the UML cadres have a long history of mutual rivalry and conflicts. Besides conflict on power sharing, Oli and Prachanda were also poaching on each other’s constituencies even within the united party. Prachanda and Nepal are not known for willingness to make compromises on sharing power. They are also exploring prospects of support from the NC and other smaller political groups. The Madhes-based parties and tribal groups are also looking out for suitable options in the fluid political situation.

Diverse groups and political stakeholders are fighting their battles in the Supreme Court to establish the illegitimacy of Oli’s move. Several petitions have been filed, making the Supreme Court’s task both time-consuming and complicated. The resulting confusion and uncertainty are encouraging street politics that threaten to disturb peace and order in Kathmandu and other parts of the country. Conditions may be created to prompt Oli to impose an emergency and postpone elections with the connivance of a friendly President in Bidya Devi Bhandari. She had readily endorsed Oli’s dissolution move against the pleas and advice from various sections including Prachanda and Nepal. Even if elections are held peacefully, fairly and in time, prospects of a stable government look dim. They would not look better even if the parliament is restored. Political equations and coalitions crafted in a fragmented polity do not hold any reassuring promise.

India’s Options

For India, the crisis in Nepal has offered at least a temporary relief. In his intra-party struggle for power, Oli had kicked up anti-Indian nationalism and precipitated a serious conflict in bilateral relations on the question of the boundary dispute in the Kalapani area. Oli is now in a minority in his own party and is desperate to seek India’s support for survival. He snubbed Chinese efforts to bring about unity in the party. He said Nepalis could find solutions to their problems and did not need any external interference. He is also talking about a negotiated solution to the boundary dispute, knowing well that his so-called nationalistic antics of constitutional endorsement for the unilaterally decided boundary line in the Kalapani region leaves little room for fair and objective negotiations. India is happy to see that Oli is in a political mess. The Communist dominance in Nepal is over and the party put together by Chinese efforts and resources stands shattered.
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There are powerful sections within the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in India that may want the forces led by the ousted monarchy under the Hindutva umbrella to become a decisive force in Nepal. In their assessment, a monarchy leaning towards Hindutva would keep the godless communists and the assertive Chinese contained. The possibility of these forces encouraging and supporting the surge of Hindutva brigades in Nepal cannot be ruled out. But it is seriously questionable if a revived monarchy and a Hindu state in Nepal would genuinely be in the long-term interests of India or even Nepal. Those favouring these retrograde forces must remember that the monarchy encouraged both China and Pakistan to counter-balance India in Nepal. The hijacking of an Indian plane IC 814 from Kathmandu by Pakistani terrorists in December 1999 was a rude shock. India’s security managers are continuously concerned about the creeping spread of Islamic radicalisation in Nepal’s southern Terai belt.

Domestically, the monarchy’s failure to deliver development had led to the Maoist insurgency, with implications for India’s security. The dismal internal cohesion of the monarchy as a family and an institution was exposed in the Palace Massacre of 2001 that wiped out King Birendra with his entire family. A proclaimed Hindu state would tear apart Nepal internally. Muslim and Christian minorities, the atheist tribal populations and Buddhists would be uncomfortable under Hindu political dominance. A sectarian state anywhere in South Asia is a sure recipe for internal conflicts and disruption.
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The prudent course for India in the present context in Nepal would be to keep normal bilateral relations active while distancing itself from the unfolding domestic political mess. India has already earned a bad reputation for micro-managing Nepali politics. This is the time to wash out that image. The unfolding uncertainty will not be helpful in resolving any of the pending disputes with Nepal. Any underhand deal with Oli’s lame-duck government will be patently vulnerable to attacks from succeeding regimes, while alienating India from other political forces.

China’s increasing economic and strategic presence in Nepal is a matter of concern for Indian policymakers. This is a challenge that calls for sustained and long-term strategy, not just ad hoc responses to regime changes. China will meddle in Nepal’s domestic politics because its stakes are high in view of the Belt and Road Initiative. China also has a growing sense of vulnerability about Tibet in the period following the present Dalai Lama’s time. It fears that the United States and India together can exploit the situation. That is why President Xi Jinping has launched a new repressive approach to bring Tibet in line with Xinjiang. China has strongly opposed the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) initiative and the Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2019. China will try to have a pliant regime in Kathmandu, but the situation is not conducive for it to succeed. India should encourage and support Nepali leaders to take their politics into their own hands. China had gained by exploiting India’s messy involvement in Nepal’s domestic politics and its assertive stance on bilateral issues. Now, China’s own deepening engagement with Nepali politics will only bring it a bad name and extract a heavy political cost. This will open, in turn, windows of opportunities for India to regain its contested strategic space.

S.D. Muni is Professor Emeritus, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is also Member, Executive Council, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, and former Ambassador and Special Envoy, Government of India.

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