Here is Nepal’s deep political paradox. For it to recover from the deep political crisis that has erupted after the promulgation of the constitution, the intense polarisation between the pahad and Madhes, and to gradually restore bilateral ties with India, the country needs to re-elect the same person who is in office as the new Prime Minister.
He however stares at a defeat.
Sushil Koirala has presided over the promulgation of the deeply contested constitution; it is under his government that the ongoing 55-day Madhes movement has taken a strong, anti-state character; and it is under him that ties with Delhi have witnessed such a sharp dip - the sharpest ever between a Nepali Congress led government and India. His insensitivity can be gauged by the fact that it took him 32 days to visit Kailali, the site where protestors killed eight police officials and which became the trigger for both a wider movement across the plains and the heavy-handed, almost brutal, state response.
Yet, it is only with his re-election in the contest for Prime Minister, slated for Sunday, that a door may open up to address the multiple, but related, crises facing Nepal.
In politics, the choice is always relative. Koirala does not represent virtue - but his rival, UML chairman, K P Oli represents a lot that is wrong with the current political moment. Oli, however, has a distinct advantage in the race at the moment, after having cobbled together a ‘nationalist’ coalition of the far right and far left.
Koirala’s Nepali Congress and Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) were allies till Saturday. But NC’s decision to contest for PM - under the new constitution, there has to be re-election for president, Vice President PM, and Speaker - has fractured ties. A supposed gentleman’s agreement between the two big parties - the existence of which is denied by NC - to make Koirala president and Oli Prime Minister did not materialise.
There is little doubt that even though Koirala was the PM, Oli has driven national politics and the constitution writing process in Nepal. So it is important to get a sense of who he is.
Oli was an armed revolutionary in the late 60s, who spent over a decade in prison. He then moved away from the path of violence, and became a mainstream left politician in the 90s. But then he went a step ahead and ended up at the conservative end of Nepal’s political spectrum.
In 2004, when King Gyanendra was in control of the levers of power, Oli pushed the UML to join a royal-appointed government. And while he was present when the 12 point understanding with the Maoists was signed to initiate the peace process in 2005, he was not an active participant in the 2006 movement for democracy and peace. He was a reluctant republican.
In the past decade, the fundamental fault-line in Nepal was between Maoist and non-Maoist political forces. Oli emerged as the champion of the anti-Maoist brigade. To counter it, he veered the party strongly towards the right, aligning with the business and military elite. This gave him great currency with the Indian establishment. Its covert agencies pampered Oli, since Delhi then believed in propping up those Nepali leaders who would take a position against the Maoists.
Oli’s power has only grown in the past two years as UML succeeded in becoming the second largest party in the country. He became the chairman of the party in the last convention in 2014, despite failing health.
A fundamental change in Nepal has been the cry of the marginalised social groups, be it Madhesis or Janjatis or women or Dalits, for greater inclusion. This rhetoric has made members of otherwise dominant castes, the hill Bahuns and Chhetris insecure.
Oli decided to project himself a the strongest defender of ‘national unity and integrity’. The demand for identity based federalism was painted as secessionism; the cry for inclusion an attack on traditional values; and preserving the manner in which the Nepali state exists was considered the priority.
It is an old ploy, which Oli has emulated straight from King Mahendra’s textbook, the monarch who created the notion of narrow, anti India, Nepali nationalism to consolidate his own power after dismissing an elected government in 1960.
This nationalism has two key pillars. It seeks to create uniformity, rather than respect diversity. It seeks to prioritise old hill symbols as signs of being ‘true Nepalis’ rather than redefine who being a Nepali is to create room for cultural heterogeneity; and it seeks to portray India as ‘the other’, which wants to weaken, fragment, divide Nepal – and only the upholder of this form of nationalism stands between India and Nepal’s ‘Sikkim-isation’ (directly conquered), or ‘Fiji-isation’ (indirectly controlled through demographic aggression).
Ironically, Oli, long a favorite of the Indian establishment, is today the man who stands as the epitome of old Nepali nationalism. It is also an irony that Oli, a long term Maoist baiter, today is on the cusp of power with Maoist support - albeit a different Maoist party which has given up its agenda of support for the excluded groups and got coopted in the establishment.
He has driven the constitution which reflects the deep internal chauvinism of the Mahendra years. By reducing political representation, diluting principles of inclusion, creating federal units which would entrench hill upper caste hegemony, and drafting citizenship provisions driven by the fear of Indian demographic aggression, the constitution - on which Oli’s ideology is implanted - triggered the Madhes movement. It was also a Home Minister from Oli’s party who was in charge of the police as state brutalities increased in the Tarai. By painting the domestic Madhes movement as an Indian conspiracy, he also has tried to score points as a ‘nationalist’.
And it is on this basis of ‘nationalism’ that he has allied with Maoists, a supposedly revolutionary left party, and Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (Nepal), a royalist right wing party. The only thing that unites them is the Mahendrabaadi agenda. Indeed, Kathmandu is abuzz with speculation that the former king, Gyanendra, and his key aide, Dr Tulsi Giri, have played a part in this alliance coming together.
It is yet another irony that the first government under the new republican constitution - which will be dominated by communists in theory - will bear the strong imprint of the royalist political legacy.
The state of play
The NC’s decision to join the race a day before the election leaves them at a distinct disadvantage, especially as a momentum had been building up in favour of Oli who had carefully cultivated constituencies for this moment. UML has over 180 seats in the house of 601 - with the Prachanda-led Maoists having 80 seats and RPP-N’s 25 seats, and a mix of small parties, Oli may be home.
There remain two variables though. There is a faction within the Maoists, of about 15 MPs loyal to Baburam Bhattarai who may be willing to make a switch, to Koirala if he is close to victory. The RPP-N or a faction of the party too may make a last minute switch. What is however significant is that irrespective of whether Koirala wins or loses, all Madhesi parties - who are leading the mass movement in the plains - have decided to support Koirala. And that is because they fear Oli’s conservative politics. His rise may increase the gulf between pahad and Madhes, and make it almost irreversible. As a Madhesi leader told HT, “NC has not been sensitive to our aspirations. But their base is the Tarai. There are people within the party who understand Madhesi aspirations. And they are liberal democrats. We may be able to work out a deal with them.”
In Kathmandu’s drawing rooms and social media, this election is being projected is one between a Nepal candidate (Oli) and an India-backed candidate (Koirala). It is indeed true that Delhi would prefer to see an NC-led formation.
But it would be more accurate to see this election as a contest between ultra nationalists of the left and right - whose politics is exclusionary and targets Madhesi minorities and paints India as the villain - and moderates who seek a democratic, constitutional settlement and recognise the special nature of the relationship with India. At a time when relations between the capital and the southern periphery is at its lowest internally, and Kathmandu-Delhi ties have hit rock bottom, the NC-led formation would be better equipped to sort out problems. But with Oli on the ascendant, both dynamics- Kathmandu-Tarai and Kathmandu-Delhi- may dip further. There is a view that Oli may immediately make amends and reach out to both Tarai and Delhi after winning, but the trust deficit is so deep that whether this outreach happens, and whether it can lead to something sustainable, is a big question.
There is yet another irony. With the ruling elite of Nc-UML-Maoists together, Kathmandu’s political class had the confidence to ride roughshod over Tarai aspirations. But the fracture of the elite does not help the cause of the Tarai much either - because a two-thirds majority is needed for any constitutional settlement and with NC and UML on opposite sides, this is unlikely to happen.
If Oli takes the centre stage today, Nepali politics will head for more turbulent times. Expect a more radicalised Tarai movement, and a further dip in ties between Delhi and Kathmandu.