How Nepal govt’s new parties must strike a balance in the region - Hindustan Times
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View from the Himalayas | New coalition, old policy? How Nepal govt’s new parties must strike a balance in the region

Mar 13, 2024 06:27 PM IST

The recent changes in the government’s composition beg the question, how will the Communist-dominated coalition balance ties with Delhi and Beijing?

Even for those following Nepal’s political developments closely, keeping track of splits, mergers, coalitions, and unifications of its numerous communist parties can seem arcane.

In a flurry of events last week, the three communist parties came together in the ruling coalition, with Prime Minister Prachanda expelling the Nepali Congress, the largest party in the 275-member Parliament, from the government.(HT Archive) PREMIUM
In a flurry of events last week, the three communist parties came together in the ruling coalition, with Prime Minister Prachanda expelling the Nepali Congress, the largest party in the 275-member Parliament, from the government.(HT Archive)

In a flurry of events last week, the three communist parties came together in the ruling coalition, with Prime Minister Prachanda expelling the Nepali Congress, the largest party in the 275-member Parliament, from the government.

Prachanda decided to return to his Left fold bringing in new partners, the biggest catch being the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist, the CPN-UML In the process, he traded the centrist Nepali Congress, the largest party, with the second largest and a communist party at that. The coming together of the communist parties after the 2017 general election resulted in the Nepal Communist Party, a political colossus, with close to two-thirds majority in Parliament.

How far will the current coalition go? Also, what will it mean to Nepal’s external ties, with New Delhi, Beijing, the U.S., the Western democracies, and regional and international bodies? The most obvious question is what led to a sudden about-face in the ever-warring communist parties?

The most recent series of events dates to late 2020 when the largest communist party in Nepal’s history, the Nepal Communist Party, split into three — the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML), the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center) and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Socialist (CPN-US). It would be safe to attribute most of these splits, and alliances, to political expediency than to ideologies.

Unsurprisingly, in 2022 the Maoists aligned with the centrist Nepali Congress in what was the most non-ideological elections in Nepal’s history. But soon after the election, the Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ was elected prime minister with the support of the CPN-UML, the second-largest party in parliament. As the largest party in the hung Parliament, Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba believed he had the rightful claim to the premiership, but in CPN-UML, Prachanda found a willing partner to support his bid. However, the communist bonhomie did not last long. In February 2023, the CPN-UML pulled out of the government after the Maoists supported Ram Chandra Poudel, a Congress leader, as the president. It was now the Nepali Congress’ turn to join Prachanda’s government.

Ever since the Nepal Communist Party’s rupture in 2020, grandees in each of the three resulting communist parties have cried foul. Attributing the fall of the grand Left alliance to the short-sightedness of Prachanda and Madhav Kumar Nepal (the latter now heads the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Socialist), Oli has repeated umpteen times that neither of them can be trusted. Messrs. Prachanda and Nepal, meanwhile, have given a similarly poor appraisal of Oli’s leadership.

Now the three parties are back together.

The political lingo of the communist parties seems to have taken a moderate tenor. They extol the virtue of progressive politics, declare the need for a broader communist alliance to safeguard Nepal’s polity from a continuous rightward pull, and the reason that Left unity is imperative to political stability.

“Your questions are ghatiya [cheap],” an angry Oli shot back at a group of reporters who had asked him if the Maoists had taken him for a ride. The implied message from the press was simple enough: With only 32 seats in the lower house, well below the Nepali Congress (87 seats) and CPN-UML (76), the Maoist leader Prachanda had managed to entrench himself in Singha Durbar.

What does this hold out for bilateral ties?

First, strong internal factors are at play. The growing perception among the communist parties, especially the Maoists and Unified Socialists, is that they could be facing a terminal decline. Most of their candidates, including several political veterans, fared poorly in the 2022 election.

Once the chairman of the largest party in Parliament (2008-2012), Prachanda seems to have survived the decline of the Maoist Center for now. When he took office in December 2022 after the election, he agreed to step down after two years to make way for Madhav Kumar Nepal for a year in office before the Nepali Congress President Deuba would step in for the final two years, in the leadup to the next general election. By that account, Prachanda still had more than nine months in Singha Durbar but he began to have an afterthought about his long-term future with the Congress. One major trigger may have been the Congress’ recent decision that it will contest the upcoming elections independently, without the support of any electoral alliance.

Though the CPN-UML Chairman KP Oli tried to downplay the role of external factors in his address to Parliament before the confidence vote on Wednesday, if there is one power that is happy about the current development, it must be Beijing, which has historically enjoyed close ties with Nepal’s communist parties. This was especially true when the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) ran a super-majority government until its implosion in 2020.

There is, however, a key difference between the all-powerful NCP government headed by Oli then and the one Prachanda now heads. The combined strength of the three communist parties in Parliament is only 118 — 20 short of a majority.

This is where two other parties in the ruling coalition come into the equation. Led by former TV anchor Rabi Lamichhane and Swarnim Wagle, an economist of renown as its vice-president, RSP (with 21 seats) is anything but an old-school communist party. The party did surprisingly well in its first-ever election, projecting itself as an alternative to old parties.

RSP and the Terai-based Janata Samajbadi Party (12 seats) are expected to provide crucial checks and balances against the communist parties. Clearly, unlike the NCP government headed by Oli until 2020, Prachanda does not have the numbers on his side to single-handedly set the domestic and foreign-policy agenda.

The political fine balance has already started in Kathmandu. As soon as the Maoist Center leader, Narayankaji Shrestha was sworn in as foreign minister last week, Indian ambassador to Nepal Naveen Srivastava met him in person and conveyed Delhi’s message that its policy towards the new government would remain unchanged. The move also underscores the Modi government’s new approach in the immediate neighbourhood: Work closely with whoever is in power and use diplomatic levers to encourage the desired policy changes, thanks to Delhi’s growing emphasis on economic partnerships. After Srivastava, it was the Chinese Ambassador Chen Song’s turn to pay a courtesy call to Shrestha.

While Beijing is expected to remain deeply invested in the new political alignment, New Delhi, Washington and western democracies will view the governing alliance dominated by the communist parties with a certain degree of unease and even suspicion.

Akhilesh Upadhyay, former editor of The Kathmandu Post, is a Senior Fellow at IIDS, a Kathmandu-based think tank. The views expressed are personal.

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