Published in the Hindu on December 29, 2022
The general elections in Nepal held in November passed off peacefully but prospects for a stable government remain elusive. Neither of the two electoral coalitions managed to secure a clear majority. Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ who had broken up with United Marxist- Leninist (UML) in 2020 and joined the Nepali Congress (NC)-led coalition, once again switched to the UML. On Christmas day, he was appointed Prime Minister for the third time. To demonstrate his majority within 30 days, Prachanda will have to satisfy the demands of UML and six other political parties with widely diverging agendas.
With 89 seats in a House of 275, NC had emerged as the largest party. It had an opportunity to form both the federal and six of the seven provincial governments with its coalition partners but missed the bus, thanks to the NC leader Sher Bahadur Deuba’s ego (he is 76 and after five stints, remains convinced of his destiny to be PM six times) and poor advice. Yet, thirty days is a long time in Nepal’s politics and Prachanda may again realise too late that he had been manipulated by UML leader K P Oli.
A messy transition
Nepal’s transition from a monarchy to a republic began in 2008. In fifteen years, Nepal has had three NC Prime Ministers (G. P. Koirala, Sushil Koirala and Mr. Deuba twice), two Maoist Prime Ministers (Prachanda twice and Baburam Bhattarai), three UML Prime Ministers (Madhav Nepal, Jhala Nath Khanal and Mr. Oli twice), and a Chief Justice as caretaker PM in 2013. In such a fluid environment, political horse trading has been rampant.
Following the adoption of the new constitution in 2015, elections were held in 2017. Then too, Prachanda was in a coalition government with the NC but a month before the elections, switched to form an electoral alliance with the UML. He soon realised that he was relegated to being the junior partner with 53 seats compared to UML’s 121. Mr. Oli assumed the post of PM in 2018 and despite promising Prachanda, never ceded control of the merged Nepal Communist Party.
Mr. Oli’s authoritarian traits soon antagonised some of his senior colleagues, Madhav Nepal, Jhala Nath Khanal, and Bhim Rawal who made common cause with Prachanda. However, Mr. Oli had a clear run till early 2020 because under the constitution, a no-confidence-motion cannot be entertained for the first two years. By summer of 2020, intra-party rumblings came to the fore, creating a showdown by the end of the year. Fortunately for Prachanda, a Supreme Court judgement in early 2021, annulled the merger of Maoists with the UML, enabling Prachanda to claim his party back.
As Mr. Oli realised that he was losing his majority, he tried to retrieve the situation by recommending dissolution of the House. President Bidya Devi 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 had taken on the role of her political mentor and in 2018, backed her elevation to the presidency. She reciprocated the favour by ignoring constitutional propriety and approving dubious ordinances that were repeatedly struck down by the Supreme Court.
Maoists under Prachanda and the dissident group of the UML led by Madhav Nepal eventually jumped ship and backed the NC Sher Bahadur Deuba’s appointment as PM in July last year. The three coalition partners had fought the elections as an alliance but Mr. Oli succeeded in splitting the alliance by weaning away Prachanda, who by his own admission, admits to being easily tempted.
Election results of 2022
The 2008 elections saw the emergence of two new political actors, Maoists who had come overground after waging a decade long insurgency and Madhesis who spearheaded the call for federalism. Over the years, they have lost their ideological moorings and have aligned with whichever group forms the government. From being the single largest party in 2008 with nearly 40% seats in the first Constituent Assembly, Maoists are today reduced to 11%; the Madhesis have come down from 15% to 10%.
The 2022 elections have seen new political actors emerge. Rashtriya Swantantra Party (RSP), a creation of Rabi Lamichhane, a popular TV talk show host, became the platform for the millennial Nepalis, especially the diaspora. They were disenchanted with the self-serving leaders of the NC, the UML and the Maoist parties. However, the RSP MPs are a diverse group who campaigned on their individual platforms and with their own resources.
Similar disenchantment with the Madhesi parties led to the emergence of the Janmat party, led by C K Raut, a former supporter of Madhesi secessionism, and Nagarik Unmukti Party set up by a Tharu leader Resham Chaudhury who is behind bars but his wife Ranjeeta Shrestha campaigned successfully in his name. RSP, Janmat and NUP managed to win 20, 6 and 3 seats respectively.
This fragmentation of votes has led to a lot of ‘floaters’ who can switch allegiances, just as Prachanda has done. Upendra Yadav (Janata Samajbadi Party) was in talks with the NC when it appeared that it would form the government but shifted back to the UML-Maoist group. The pro-monarchy pro-Hindutva Rashtriya Prajatantra Party supporting the secular Communist alliance reflects the opportunism in Nepali politics!
Prachanda may think that he has a secure two-year term but with barely 32 seats (UML has 78), it is clear that Mr. Oli will call the shots. He will ensure his own candidate as the president once Smt Bhandari’s term ends in March 2023. In the provinces, Maoists will be lucky to get one chief ministership.
It is at times of political instability that Nepali politicians start looking for the convenient scapegoat of ‘foreign interference’. India was conspicuously missing during the election campaign and Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first to congratulate Mr. Prachanda on his appointment. Post-2018, China had played a major role in bringing about a UML-Maoist alliance but failed to keep it intact. Senior Maoist leader Barshaman Pun was in China was medical treatment recently and reportedly played a role in the new UML-Maoist rapprochement.
In recent years, India has retrieved lost ground in Nepal by focusing on project implementation. Since 2022, the Jayanagar-Bardibas railway started with India providing technical support. In 2019, the long awaited Motihari-Amlekhgunj oil pipeline was inaugurated. Power generation in Nepal has picked up. The agreement to export 364 MW signed in June has yielded export earnings of $60 million in 2022. According to Nepal Electricity Authority, the figure could quadruple in 2023 with the 900 MW Arun 3 becoming operational.
Yet there are some issues that need to be resolved. Foremost is the demonetised Indian currency issue, pending since 2016. Talks between the two central banks need a political nudge. The second is the recruitment for the Gurkha regiments, held up since the launch of the Agnipath scheme. As PM Modi declared during his last visit, the relationship needs “equality, mutual trust, respect and benefit” to sustain it, irrespective of who resides in Baluwatar.