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Nepal, a Shangri-La in a perpetual state of political uncertainty

TOP NEWS-26-03-2020
Prachanda with Oli

On April 22, 2018, on the 148th birth anniversary of Vladimir Lenin, top Nepali Communist leaders who had over the past three decades dominated Nepali politics, had gathered at the Central Hall of the National Assembly in Kathmandu. The gathering was to merge two of the largest political parties in the Himalayan republic the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), or CPN-UML, and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) – into a single Nepal Comminist Party (NCP). 

But there was trouble on the first day itself. Instead of putting up the portraits of the communist revolutionaries, like Lenin, Karl Marx and Mao Zedong, the walls of the Central Hall were adorned with portraits of the communist pioneers of Nepal, including Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli. This angered Maoist leaders who removed the images and banners.

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The hullabaloo anticipated future feuds between two communist leaders of divergent political ideologies, Pushpa Kamal Dahal alias Prachanda, a Maoist, and K. P. Sharma Oli, a liberal communist. Their differences would dog Nepali politics since then, despite the formation of a united Nepal Communist Party (NCP) in which they share power.

By forming a rare electoral alliance in December 2017, the two parties had won a landslide victory in both the national and provincial assembly elections held under the new constitution. The alliance was perceived to be close to China and the defeated Nepali Congress, a centrist party, was perceived as pro-India. 

An erstwhile Hindu kingdom, Nepal has, over the last 28 years, seen as many as 26 Prime Ministers. Nepal’s first democratically elected government was formed in 1991, when Girija Prasad Koirala became the Hindu Kingdom’s first elected prime minister. Nepal has had ten government changes after the abolition of monarchy in 2008.

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Nepali politics have always been dominated by a handful of powerful people over the last 25 years. 

The power struggle within the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) has intensified due to a trust deficit between the party co-chairs, Prime Minister Oli and Prachanda. Says former Professor of Political Science at the Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, Krishna Khanal: “We can only guess when the intra-party feuding will end. While Oli is desperate to hold on to the Prime Minister’s chair as well to the reins of the ruling party, Prachanda too seems to be frantic to change the equation.”

Khanal told South Asian Monitor: “In 2017 the Maoist Centre and the CPN-UML had fought the elections together dominating Parliament as the first and second largest parties. The two parties had announced a merger under the name of the Nepal Communist Party and Oli and Prachanda were made the co-chairs of the new party. But in just over a year, differences between the leaders emerged and a political document presented by the two co-chairmen of the new party in December 2018 had come under severe criticism.” 

“One thing we understand is that the entire procedure of the merger was dependent on the two leaders. When the UML and the Maoists agreed to merge into one party, Oli did not take the former UML rank and file into confidence,” Khanal pointed out.

Oli and Dahal are poles apart in their political dealings, says Krishna Pokharel, a professor of political science at the Tribhuvan University.“The unification of the two Nepali communist parties were based on suspicion to mitigate this suspicion, the two parties agreed on having two co-chairs in the NCP. It was thought that the agreement would develop into mutual understanding of a 50-50 power-sharing formula. Prachanda said ‘no problem’. And Oli went on to become the Prime Minister and Prachanda would run the party”.

Though, the coming together of the Maoists with an ‘ultra-left’ past and the moderate CP (UML)was a ‘remarkable political development’ in a country where the communists had split dozens of times since their movement was launched 70 years back, things did not pan out as agreed, Pokharel said. 

“Oli wanted all power to himself. Top UML leaders, including Madhav Kumar Nepal, Jhala Nath Khanal both former prime minister and Bamdev Gautam, were sidelined by Oli, are now aligned with Prachanda. Oli even orchestrated feuds between them by pitting one against the other. But Prachanda was not a walkover,” Pokharel pointed out.

For two years since the 2017 elections, Oli was given a free hand but he could not deliver, Pokharel added. The 9-member secretariat of the NCP the party’s highest executive body is fractured into three distinct groups, says Khanal. The Secretariat has only three Maoist members Prachanda, Ram Bahadur  Thapa and Narayan Kaji Shrestha and the 45-member standing committee includes only 19 Maoists. 

“While Oli commands and has the support of two members, Prachanda has the support of former senior UML leaders, including Khanal, Nepal and Gautam, the rest are fence sitters. To mitigate the challenge from the Prachanda camp, Oli agreed to allow Prachanda to be the executive chairman of the party in addition of being the co-chair.” 

According to Khanal, Prachanda had been pressing Oli to let him take over as Prime Minister before his term expires in 2022under a power sharing deal between the two leaders. “Allowing Prachanda to run the party for the rest of the term until 2022, will now let Oli complete his term as Prime Minister. It is a smart move to keep Prachanda at bay for the time being at least,” Khanal noted. 

Senior journalist Anil Giri, who covers national politics, diplomacy and international relations for the English daily, the Kathmandu Post says that the constant feuding between the two communist leaders stems from their diverse ideologies. “They have different perceptions about governance and both hanker for power,” Giri told South Asian Monitor

Oli’s fragile health may go against him, but the old war horse is not likely to relent and handover the reins of power. When Modi convened a video conference of SAARC heads, Oli participated even though he was just out of hospital. “By participating in the video-conference just days after undergoing the second kidney transplant surgery, Oli sent out a clear message that he is still firmly in the driver’s seat and is running the country. However his political future is uncertain,” Pokharel said.

Journalist Giri said: “The UML- Maoist Centre alliance had won the elections on the platform of political stability and economic prosperity. The Nepali people, having endured a decade-long armed Maoist insurgency which ended in 2006 causing 16,000 deaths, were eager to reap the peace dividend. The new Left Alliance had promised a stable government that would last a full term, a rarity in the last two decades of parliamentary democracy. People endorsed the alliance by voting for them with massively, which motivated the alliance to form single communist party-the NCP.” Giri explained.

India/China Factor

The India factor has a role in Nepal’s political developments as journalist Giri pointed out. The alienation from India, brought in China. Giri blamed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for India’s losing its hold on Nepal. “Modi made a mistake by imposing the crippling economic blockade and lost its hold on Nepal. The India-supported blockade made the people of Nepal anti-India,” Giri told SAM. 

The five month long Nepal blockade, which began on 23 September 2015, was an economic and humanitarian crisis which crippled life in Nepal and its economy. The blockade choked imports of not only petroleum, but also medicines and earthquake relief material to the landlocked nation, which had for centuries been depended on imports from India for everything from oil to pulses. There were long queues outside petrol stations, severe shortages of cooking gas and lifesaving medicines. The majority of people of Nepal were shocked by the altitude of neighboring India, which shares close cultural, ethnic and religious links and an open 1,800km border. 

Nepal's ethnic Madhesi groups in the southern plains of the Terai region, bordering India, who share close cultural and family ties with the people across the border in India, had launched a general strike late in 2015 in protest at the country's new constitution. The Madhesi groups were demanding better representation under the new constitution.

“The economic blockade by India, was a blunder and interfering with the drafting of the Nepal constitution was a bigger blunder,” Pokharel pointed out. “India interfered with the drafting of Nepal’s constitution, thinking that Nepal will be a Hindu republic. Modi wanted to impose the BJP’s brand of Hindutva in Nepal too, and coming as it did after the devastating earthquake in which more than 9,000 people were killed, it turned every Nepali against India,” Pokharel said. 

“The blockade had had a huge impact on earthquake reconstruction and rehabilitation due to a lack of construction material. An entire nation was seething with anger and despair,” he added.

Giri added that the Left Alliance won the election on a strongly nationalist and anti-India platform, presenting itself as the only political force that could stand up to India’s interference in Nepal’s internal affairs.

While the formation of the NCP has upset India, it has surely brought joy to northern neighbor China. The blockade pushed Nepal to knock on the doors of its northern neighbor, said Pokharel. “Nepal as landlocked country, had no other option but to tilt towards China. After suffering the ignominy due to the blockade, the trust Nepalese people had for India vanished. India wants Nepal to be like Bhutan,” he charged.