Twist in Nepal poses a new challenge to India - Hindustan Times

Twist in Nepal poses a new challenge to India

Dec 28, 2022 07:58 PM IST

The NC, the largest party in parliament, has been left to lick its wounds. The move will have serious implications both in domestic politics and Nepal’s foreign policy

Some friends are bought, some don’t cost a dime.

The coming together of two major Communist parties may push the new government closer to Beijing (AFP) PREMIUM
The coming together of two major Communist parties may push the new government closer to Beijing (AFP)

The November 20 elections have turned out to be one of high drama, even by Nepal’s standards of quick political turn-arounds. Leaders of the five-party ruling alliance headed by the Nepali Congress (NC) president, Sher Bahadur Deuba, promised right through the election — and for weeks after — that their coalition would continue for years. The party grandees not only demonstrated close camaraderie, but also never failed to emphasise that they needed to stay together to safeguard progressive political changes that had taken place in the past decade or so. Nepal abolished a 250-year monarchy in 2008, drafted a new constitution in 2015, and held its first elections to a three-tier government — local, provincial and federal — in 2017.

Then, on Sunday, the ruling coalition collapsed suddenly. As the 5 pm deadline to stake claim for premiership approached, the chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda”, ditched the Nepali Congress (NC) and decided to shake hands with Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, the chairman of the main opposition Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML), to become the prime minister (PM), a position denied to him by Deuba. Five other parties quickly joined forces. The move left the NC stunned. For Oli, it was a political masterstroke, and it didn’t cost him much.

What precipitated the reversal and who (both at home and abroad) benefits from it depends on how you look at it. After the elections, Deuba and Prachanda stuck to their guns to lead the new government for the first two-and-a-half years. To Deuba, it was a legitimate claim, as the NC had replaced the CPN-UML as the largest party in parliament while the Maoists had finished a distant third. To Prachanda, who had supported Deuba for a-year-and-half as PM, it was time to be rewarded as a loyal coalition partner. To Oli, the tiny window was enough to break the coalition juggernaut, which had gradually dismantled the CPN-UML’s hold in all three tiers of government since 2017 and was all set to repeat the feat. He invited Prachanda to lead the new government for the first two-and-a-half years and agreed to take the office for the rest of the five-year term.

The NC, the largest party in parliament, has been left to lick its wounds. The move will have serious implications both in domestic politics and Nepal’s foreign policy.

The character of the new hung parliament points to extreme instability. First, Prachanda will have to win a vote of confidence within 30 days of his appointment. Second, though Nepal’s constitution does not permit a motion of no-confidence against the PM for two years once he gets through one, Prachanda will be required to seek a confidence vote even if a single party in the ruling coalition withdraws from the government. The CPN (Maoist Centre) has been supported by six parties, including the second largest party in parliament, the CPN-UML, which has 78 seats; the Maoist Centre, on the other hand, has only 32. Third, in exchange for supporting Prachanda as PM, the CPN-UML is likely to get two crucial positions — president and the house speaker — who have both been instrumental each time there has been a political or constitutional deadlock in the past five years. Fourth, the new coalition has fundamental contradictions. The third largest party in the government, the newly formed Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP), is still very much an unknown entity politically. Led by former TV anchor Rabi Lamichhane (he ran an anti-establishment show where he would take on dominant political parties), the RSP did not take part in provincial elections but won a creditable 20 seats in the federal parliament. Another coalition partner, the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) is a royalist force that advocates for the restoration of Nepal as a Hindu State. Both the RSP and the RPP are perceived to be anti-federalist forces. On the other hand, three other coalition partners — the Janata Samajbadi Party, Nagarik Unmukti Party and Janamat Party — are all Tarai-based and stand unequivocally in favour of federalism, much like the PM’s party.

The coming together of two major Communist parties is expected to push the new government ideologically and politically closer to Beijing. The CPN-UML and Maoist Centre enjoy far closer ties with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) than the NC, a scenario that should make Delhi, Washington and Western governments wary. In its discussions on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Deuba government had conveyed to Chinese officials that Nepal could not take commercial loans to finance its large infrastructure projects and would prefer grants instead.

President Xi Jinping’s re-election for a third five-year term as the leader of the CCP and his advocacy of the party’s resolutely increased role in the polity could bring Nepal’s Communist parties even closer to Beijing. When Xi visited Kathmandu in 2019, Oli was PM, and Prachanda and Oli served as chairmen of the now-defunct Nepal Communist Party. No BRI project has been commissioned in Nepal yet, but the stalled negotiations are now expected to gather momentum. On Tuesday, a day after the new PM was sworn in, China opened Rasuwagadhi border point, which had remained closed for nearly three years and sent an expert team for a feasibility study of a trans-Himalayan railway, a cross-border project under the BRI umbrella. The five-party coalition led by Deuba lasted for 15 months until a shock exit early this week. Prachanda must be acutely aware of that, including his domestic and foreign policy challenges.

Akhilesh Upadhyay is a senior research fellow at IIDS, a Kathmandu-based think tank The views expressed are personal

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