Published in The Hindu on 27th May, 2021
Nepali politics entered another phase of uncertainty last week. The country’s President, Bidya Devi Bhandari, dissolved the House of Representatives (lower house) late night on Friday, at the suggestion of Prime Minister K. P. Sharma Oli, in a partisan move that disregarded the Constitution. Fresh elections were announced for between 12 and 18 November. Announcing elections was just to ensure that Oli continues in office, controlling the state machinery, even as Nepal battles a second and deadlier COVID-19 wave.
Oli’s opportunistic politics
Mr. Oli came to power after the 2017 elections, the first undertaken in the federal republic of Nepal, established under the 2015 Constitution. He led his party, the CPN(UML) to an impressive tally of 121 seats and together with Maoist Centre’s 53, enjoyed a near absolute majority in the 275-strong House. In May 2018, the two allies merged to cement their alliance and created the Nepal Communist Party (NCP).
Relations with India saw positive movement. Delhi was willing to overcome its reservations about Mr. Oli’s anti-Indian nationalist tirades. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Nepal in May 2018, shortly after Mr. Oli’s visit.
However, Oli’s autocratic tendencies soon began to surface. The power sharing arrangement worked out with former Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ started fraying. The original idea that both would take turns at being Prime Minister and run the NCP as co-chairs became irksome for Mr. Oli. While he weaned away the Maoists cabinet members, senior disgruntled UML leaders led by former Prime Ministers, Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhala Nath Khanal, gravitated towards Prachanda. Differences emerged in the open and a growing demand surfaced for honouring the ‘one person one post’ policy. Prachanda was willing to let Mr. Oli continue the full term as Prime Minister, provided he gave up his role as co-chair of the party. Mr. Oli decided otherwise.
Mr. Oli needed a distraction and by end-2019, found one in the Kalapani boundary issue. India issued new maps following the division of the State of Jammu and Kashmir Union Territories, Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. While 98% of the India-Nepal boundary was demarcated, two areas, Susta and Kalapani had remained pending. Though the new Indian map did not affect the India-Nepal boundary in any material way, it was an opportunity for Mr. Oli to don his nationalist mantle. He expanded the Kalapani area dispute from one covering approximately 60 square kilometres on Nepal’s northwest tip with Uttarakhand and China by raising the demand for restoring an additional 335 sq kms. The boundaries were fixed in 1816 by the British, and India inherited the areas over which the British had exercised territorial control in 1947.
Domestic politics takes over
Caught up in the first COVID-19 wave, India kept deferring bilateral talks, perhaps not realising the domestic political pressures on Mr. Oli. In May 2020 when Defence Minister Raj Nath Singh inaugurated the 75 km road through Kalapani that linked to the Kailash-Mansarovar pilgrimage route, Mr. Oli upped the ante by whipping up nationalist sentiment, getting a new map of Nepal endorsed by the House and adopting a constitutional amendment to sanctify Nepal’s new territory. While this did not alter the situation on the ground, it cramped the prospects of any dialogue with India. It was a short reprieve and Mr. Oli’s political troubles soon returned to haunt him.
President Bhandari has been Mr. Oli’s close comrade since she entered active politics after the untimely demise of her husband Madan Bhandari, a charismatic UML leader, in a car accident in 1993. Mr. Oli was her political mentor and backed her elevation as President. She reciprocated by ignoring constitutional propriety and approving dubious ordinances including amending the Constitutional Council Act that enabled Mr. Oli to pack constitutional positions with his loyalists.
Amid rumours that Prachanda and Mr. Nepal were planning to move a no-confidence-motion against him after he had studiously ignored the meetings and decisions of party’s Secretariat and the Standing Committee, Mr. Oli got President Bhandari to approve dissolution of the House on December 20, paving the way for elections in April-May. The President’s decision was uniformly criticised as unconstitutional as the NCP enjoyed a near-absolute majority.
India decided to steer clear of the mess, calling it an ‘internal matter’ while the Chinese Ambassador continued to actively push for a rapprochement between the NCP factions. A five-judge constitutional bench of the Supreme Court unanimously called for a restoration of the House on February 23 strengthening the Prachanda-Nepal faction but on March 7, delivered a bombshell by overturning the UML-Maoist merger of May 2018, against which an appeal had been pending for two years.
Mr. Oli took over the reins of the old CPN(UML), reviving prior structures but now excluding Mr. Nepal and his supporters. Some were served suspension notices. The Nepal faction was reduced to a minority; under the law, a split in the party requires a 40% of both the parliamentary party and the central committee. Prachanda, heading the Maoist Centre with 49 members since four had joined hands with Mr. Oli, needed new allies to wage his battles.
Though Mr. Oli had lost majority in the House as Maoist Centre was no longer supporting him, he challenged the opposition to file a no-confidence-motion, certain that the Maoists, Nepali Congress (NC) and the Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP) would fail to reach an agreement on a new Prime Minister. He was proven right but overtaken by hubris, he took another gamble. He called for a trust vote on 10 May that he lost as 28 UML dissident members were absent and half the JSP voted against him while the other half abstained.
The opposition again failed to present an alternative. In a questionable decision, Mr. Oli was sworn in by President Bhandari on 14 May as Prime Minister under Article 76(3) that permits the leader of the largest party to be sworn in and given thirty days to demonstrate majority. Within a week, Mr. Oli announced that he would not seek another vote of confidence. Without resigning, however, he advised the President to explore other options. Within a day, as rumours gained ground that NC leader Sher Bahadur Deuba had managed to gather support from 149 members, including 49 Maoists, 26 UML dissidents and 12 from the JSP, Mr. Oli rushed to the President and gave her a list of 153 supporters that included all 121 UML and 32 JSP members, including UML dissidents and JSP members who voted against him on May 10. Without bothering to verify, President Bhandari dissolved the House and announced fresh elections, justifying that the rival claims exceeded the strength of the House.
Since 2008 when a new Constituent Assembly was elected to prepare a constitution for a federal republic, Nepal has seen three NC Prime Ministers (G. P. Koirala, Sushil Koirala and Deuba), two Maoist Prime Ministers (Prachanda twice and Baburam Bhattarai), three UML Prime MinisterMs (Nepal, Khanal and Oli sworn in thrice) and a Chief Justice as caretaker PM in 2013. None has damaged the constitution and the political fabric of Nepal as much as Mr. Oli, together with an obliging Ms. Bhandari. Opposition leaders have challenged the House dissolution in the Supreme Court but its outcome is uncertain. Meanwhile a raging COVID-19 puts a question mark on the election. In case an election is held, Mr. Oli will campaign on a nationalist anti-Indian platform.
It is clear that political uncertainty will continue. India has traditionally supported constitutionalism and multi-party democracy in Nepal. At this juncture, it needs to remain actively engaged with all the political actors, and equally importantly, avoid being perceived as partisan.