Nepal has a new Prime Minister, the chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), K P Oli. With 338 of the 587 votes cast, he defeated the current incumbent, Nepali Congress’ Sushil Koirala, who got 249 votes in elections in Nepal’s parliament on Sunday afternoon.
Oli takes over at a particularly difficult time in the country’s history.
There is a new constitution, but it is deeply contested. A mass movement across the plains has paralysed life for over 55 days. Key social groups like Madhesis and Tharus have not owned the constitution, and seek a substantial review of its provisions.
Relations with India, Nepal’s most important neighbour, have hit rock-bottom. Delhi did not welcome the constitution, and supplies across the border are disrupted. India feels that if there is discontent among a large section of the Tarai population, the ensuing instability will have political-security implications across the border.
As the key driver of the earlier ruling coalition, Oli was the ideologue behind the constitution. He is a conservative (it is best not to get misled by the Marxist-Leninist tag of his party), who was responsible for diluting provisions of inclusion of Madhesis. His rigid stance on federal boundaries particularly in the eastern Tarai created a mutilated Madhes province without resources, which deepened the alienation in the plains. Despite the boycott of Madhesi parties during the constitution-writing process, he refused to pause the process.
Oli has also played the ultra-nationalism card directed at India. This is ironical because he was once the favorite of the Indian establishment. He has told interlocutors in private that he is opposed to the creation of two provinces in the Tarai because India would ‘control’ these provinces and use it to generate pressure on Kathmandu.
In his agreements with Maoists and other forces, opposition to ‘foreign interference’ has been played up as a defining slogan. Oli’s coming together with Maoist chairman Prachanda and the royalist right leader, Kamal Thapa, signifies the alliance of the far-left and far-right of Nepali politics, which has traditionally been united under the rubric of an anti-Madhes, and anti-India agenda. Delhi holds Oli largely responsible for the current crisis in Nepal, and tilting the Nepali discourse against India; Oli feels that India did what it could to stop him from becoming PM. Distrust is high.
In some ways, the man who has created the rift between Kathmandu and Tarai and Kathmandu and Delhi relationship will now have to resolve it.
Oli has two choices. He can either remain the man he was before taking over. The Madhesi street will continue to burn, and the movement will intensify even more. Delhi may officially welcome his election, but the chill and indifference will persist, which will make governing Nepal increasingly difficult. The post earthquake reconstruction task will continue to be relegated to the back-burner, and suffering will increase.
Or he can let power moderate his instincts, reach out to the Tarai, enable the passage of amendments related to Madhesi inclusion and representation, become flexible on the question of federal demarcation, and carve out a new contract with Madhesis and Tharus. If he improves the domestic political equilibrium, the dynamics with Delhi will also improve.
The ball is in K P Oli’s court.