In Kathmandu, a threat to democracy
India must dispel the perception that it is backing an autocratic regime, and strongly stand for constitutional and democratic governance in Nepal
Nepal’s President Bidya Devi Bhandari’s decision to dissolve the lower House of Parliament, on the advice of the Cabinet headed by Prime Minister (PM) K P Oli, is a subversion of constitutional governance, and will push the country into further turmoil and potential conflict. Coming as it does on top of a virulent pandemic that Nepal is struggling to cope with, it does not augur well for future stability.
The situation has come full circle from the time the president dissolved the House in December 2020 after Oli lost majority support, following dissensions within his party, a decision that was ruled ultra vires of the constitution by a Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court (SC). However, another ruling of the court, on a separate matter, nullified the merger that had formed the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and established the pre-merger status quo.
Accordingly, the NCP stood dissolved and the erstwhile Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) or UML, and NCP (Maoist Centre) were restored. The bulk of the opposition to Oli had come from the Maoists, led by former PM Prachanda, and a faction of the UML, headed by another former PM Madhav Kumar Nepal. Restoration of the pre-merger situation implied that the opposition to Oli within the UML was limited to the rebel faction, which comprised a mere fifth of the total number of party Members of Parliament (MPs).
Oli was, however, unable to secure the confidence of the restored House. The opposition parties, the Nepali Congress (NC) and the NCP (Maoist Centre), voted against him, and others belonging to the Madhav Nepal faction of the UML and a faction of the Terai-based Janata Samajwadi Party (JSP) absented themselves/remained neutral during the vote. Though Oli lost the confidence vote, the opposition parties, the NC and the NCP (Maoist Centre) were unable to muster the requisite numbers to form a government immediately, since the JSP was divided.
Faced with this impasse, the president again appointed Oli, in his capacity as the leader of the single-largest party in Parliament, as PM, in accordance with the constitution. In no democratic country would a PM who has just lost confidence be reappointed and again asked to prove his majority within 30 days, a sure signal for horse-trading and corruption.
Instead of seeking a fresh vote of confidence, Oli now recommended to the president that another provision of the constitution be invoked to identify a member of the House who could gain majority support and form a government. He did so without resigning his post. Even without a legal vacancy, the search for a new PM was instituted.
Despite having only a deadline of 21 hours, the opposition — which included the NC led by Sher Bahadur Deuba, MKN faction of the UML, Prachanda-led Maoists, and a faction of the JSP led by Upendra Yadav and Baburam Bhattarai — mustered 149 signatures, a comfortable majority, with Deuba staking claim for leadership. But in another twist, Oli, who had asked the president to explore government formation just the preceding day, staked claim and said he had the support of 153 MPs, but neither were they physically present nor did he present all their signatures. But this included those JSP MPs who had outlined their preference for Deuba. Both lists had some overlapping names.
Instead of judging the claims on merit and inviting Deuba, the President decided to reject both applications and, on the advice of the Cabinet, dissolved the House late during the night of May 21. Fresh elections have now been scheduled for November 2021. All executive power is concentrated in the hands of the PM and the president without parliamentary accountability.
Given the raging pandemic, there is a big question mark on whether elections will be held as scheduled. If they are, the situation would hopefully revert to normal. But this is unlikely, for the opposition parties have already announced a political and legal battle against the Bhandari-Oli unconstitutional move, and may not be willing to participate in elections presided over by the current PM. Nepal is also likely to witness public protests, especially after the pandemic is brought under control. If elections are not held, Nepal will be staring at yet another constitutional crisis. While petitions challenging the dissolution will be heard by SC, it is not clear when and what the judgment of the court will be.
India has always supported multiparty democracy and progressive change in Nepal. The perception today is that India is backing an autocratic and unpopular regime. This is partly due to the fact that a series of high-level visits have taken place between the two countries. Nepali observers are also linking the surprising support extended by a faction of the JSP, led by Mahant Thakur and Rajendra Mahato, to their erstwhile bête noire, KP Oli, who symbolised opposition to Madhesi demands during the drafting of the Constitution in 2015, to Indian influence, particularly since this faction has traditionally been close to India.
Durable political stability in Nepal is in India’s interest. Instability will only render Nepal vulnerable to inimical external influences. Already, the goodwill generated by supplying the first tranche of Covid-19 vaccines to Nepal has dissipated as India is now seen as reneging on its commitment to supply additional doses. China is stepping into the breach.
India must publicly articulate its position in support of constitutional governance. India should supply the contracted dose of vaccines to Nepal, a neighbouring country that shares open borders with India with free movement of people. Finally, we should engage fully with all political actors in Nepal, including those in opposition to Oli and not be seen to be partisan.
Ranjit Rae is a retired diplomat who served as ambassador to Nepal
The views expressed are personal