Where Nepali and Indian interests meet
On Tuesday evening, in a historic judgment, Nepal’s Supreme Court struck down Prime Minister (PM) KP Sharma Oli’s decision to dissolve Parliament as unconstitutional, ordered the restoration of the House of Representatives, and called for a sitting of the House within 13 days.
With this, Nepal has possibly averted a deep crisis, which would have torn apart its nascent democratic system, shaken the constitutional structure of republicanism, federalism and parliamentary system, pushed the country towards prolonged political instability, led to the entrenched authoritarianism of KP Sharma Oli, and eroded India standing as a democratic ally and eventually hurt its interests.
To understand the significance of what has happened in Nepal, rewind to December 20. Increasingly facing pressure from his internal party rivals — former PMs Prachanda and Madhav Nepal — Oli decided to dissolve the Parliament itself. In a traditional Westminster system, the PM — who enjoys a majority — has the right to do so. But Nepal’s new Constitution specifically prohibited a PM from doing so. This was meant to prevent instability in a country which has seen close to two dozen PMs in three decades. Oli’s move to dissolve Parliament was accompanied by his push to take over all State institutions — through appointments of pliant individuals. This, therefore, was creating a dynamic where Oli enjoyed untrammelled power with no accountability.
Elections sound democratic but there were multiple layers here. If polls happened, it would mean departing from the constitutional order and whether it would be fair and legitimate under Oli was a big question; if elections did not happen, and the House remained dissolved, there would be a period of unrest without an institutional mechanism to find a political alternative even as the government’s popular legitimacy dipped. This would then open the door for all forces — including conservative, royalist and anti-federal forces — which are uncomfortable within the political changes enshrined in the Constitution.
Nepal’s democratic forces, civil society and the media were quick to understand the nature of the crisis. The Nepal Communist Party (NCP) has undergone a de facto split, with Prachanda and Madhav Nepal taking to the streets against Oli — though this split has not been formalised yet. The Nepali Congress (NC) leader Sher Bahadur Deuba, tempted by the possibility of becoming PM after fresh elections, was ambivalent — but the entire rank and file of Nepal’s oldest democratic force was against Oli’s decision. The Janata Samajwadi Party (JSP), led by Madhesi leaders and former PM Baburam Bhattarai, could see that despite their reservations with the current Constitution, its alternative would be a further regressive turn with a setback to their cherished principles of inclusion and federalism.
It is in this context that Nepal’s Supreme Court, providing a stellar example of constitutionalism in a region where the judiciary has been perhaps too aligned with executive preferences, stepped in. The decision to restore the House is a firm rebuke to Oli — who should, on moral grounds, resign from office now. If he doesn’t, he should be prepared for a floor test as soon as the House meets — for it is unlikely he still enjoys the confidence of the Parliament he attempted to kill. The court’s decision also throws questions on the judgment of President Bidya Bhandari — who was, given her political proximity to the PM, too quick to go with an unconstitutional recommendation in dissolving the House.
But more significantly, this is a moment to look forward and correct the undemocratic turn Nepal took. Oli’s aides have claimed that the court verdict will not solve the political problem — they are right. The political problem is Oli, a deeply polarising figure who has stepped outside the constitutional framework. And he has to go. The good news is that there is a possible democratic alternative which, with some handholding and careful management, can emerge.
The Nepali Congress, the Prachanda-Nepal faction of the NCP, and the JSP should now come together — under the leadership of the NC — to form an alternative government, with a common minimum programme which recommits Nepal to a democratic constitutional path, pledges progressive constitutional amendments to take into account concerns of marginalised communities, and reorients Nepal’s foreign policy to underscore the centrality of India even as Nepal engages with China within a clear framework.
India had, to put it bluntly, misread the situation in Nepal. It has swung from being cordial with Oli (till 2014-15) to fighting him (2015-17) to reconciling with his electoral victory (2017-early 2020) to cutting off communication with him after his ultra-nationalist turn during the border dispute (March-August 2020) to becoming his close partner and ally (August onwards). When Oli reached out to Delhi last year, desperate for a rapprochement, India decided that if the PM could step back from his anti-India rhetoric and maintain the State-to-State relationship with India, Delhi could do business with him. It chose to ignore his authoritarian and ethnic exclusivist politics and close collaboration, till that point, with China.
Oli’s decision to dissolve the House also led to a split in the NCP — this was a core Indian objective for a unified, pro-China NCP had become difficult to manage. And India thought that elections would throw up a more friendly arithmetic in the House. In the process, the country— despite claims of not being involved — came across as tilting against the democratic aspirations of Nepali citizens.
Delhi should see the restoration of the House as an opening. It should advise Oli not to engage in any misadventurism; deepen its communication with other political players in the fray; and quietly convey its goodwill for a democratic alternative while outlining its red lines and core interests. Nepali democracy and Indian strategic interests converge. Build on it.
The views expressed are personal