External Affairs

As Nepal Prepares to Exhale, the Challenges it Faces Remain as Intractable as Ever

As a coalition headed by Prachanda takes charge, settling the remaining constitutional issues and resetting relations with India will be top priority.

UML leader K.P. Oli, who resigned as Nepal's prime minister on Sunday, greets Maoist leader Prachanda after announcing his decision. Credit: Reuters

UML leader K.P. Oli, who resigned as Nepal’s prime minister on Sunday, greets Maoist leader Prachanda after announcing his decision. Credit: Reuters

Sooner or later, Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli of Nepal had to go. In his enthusiasm to emerge as a strong hill upper caste nationalist leader, he had ruffled the feathers of all powerful stake holders in Nepal by opening several fronts of confrontation simultaneously. He offended the Nepali Congress (NC) by refusing to accommodate the last-minute constitutional changes proposed by the late Sushil Koirala. The Madhes and Janjati groups saw him as a staunch opponent of their federal aspirations. Maoists found him untrustworthy as he reneged on a gentlemen’s agreement to hand over power to Maoist leader Prachanda after the budget.

Oli was also seen as encouraging his party-backed human rights organisations in their quest to get criminal charges slapped on Maoists leaders for crimes committed during the insurgency period while apparently assuring them that such issues would be dealt with only under a ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ process. The Maoists were also worried that Oli’s party was trying to encroach upon their grassroots support.

Finally, his own colleagues in the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) (UML) like Madhav Nepal and Jhalanath Khanal criticised him for concentrating power in his hands and governing national and party affairs with the help of a small coterie of loyalists. New Delhi too was upset with Oli for his hyper anti-India nationalism – reminiscent of the royalist days – and his use of the China card to erode India’s traditional strategic space in Nepal.

With Oli gone, Maoist leader Prachanda is now all set to succeed him with the support of the NC.  The process is expected to proceed smoothly, though there are vested interests who may try to mislead President Vidya Bhandari – UML leader and a close Oli associate – and drag the issue of succession to the courts on the pretext of constitutional complexities. But Bhandari is a seasoned politician and understands well the dynamics of democratic transitions.

Broadly speaking, it was the alliance of the Nepali Congress and the Maoists that led Nepal’s grand transition of 2005-2006 from traditional monarchy to republican state. It is now hoped that this coalition would be able to give Nepal some much-needed stability and governance. There are of course strong reservoirs of mutual distrust between the two parties but hopefully – since their break in 2008 on the issues of power sharing when the Maoists backed away from supporting the late Congress leader G.P. Koirala for the presidentship – the past eight years have made them mature and moderate towards each other. The NC and the Maoists are ideologically poles apart but this also means they do not have eyes on each other’s grassroots constituencies. The power-sharing arrangement worked out for the present coalition in the form of nine months leadership for each one of them until the next scheduled elections and division of labour for the electoral schedule – with the Maoists conducting local body elections and the Nepali Congress conducting provincial and national elections –  may work, provided both Prachanda and Sher Bahadur Deuba assert their leadership in their respective parties and manage to keep their flock disciplined.

‘National’ government

There are also strong possibilities of the Maoist-NC coalition growing into a national consensus government. Madhes-based parties have already decided to back this coalition. The Tharu section of the Madhes-based parties, led by Bijoy Gachchadar, has already expressed a desire to join the government. Similarly inclined is the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) led by Lokendra Bahadur Chand and Pashupati Shumsher, which is planning to unite with the Kamal Thapa faction of the RPP in the coming weeks. There are clear indications that even Oli’s UML may not be averse to joining the new government if the Maoists and the NC come forward. Prachanda has in fact personally expressed his hope of cooperation from the outgoing prime minister. The UML in power may be more amenable to accepting the agenda of the new government than out of power. If the UML joins the government, Nepal may have a broad-based national consensus government. In establishing such a government, the working out of a power-sharing arrangement that satisfies each constituent may pose some difficulties but the ingenuity and resilience of the Nepali politicians have always found a way out of such challenges.

The new government in Nepal faces many fold challenges, the most  difficult of which are those related to  accommodating the demands of the Madhes and Janjati group, and of the Maoists concerning a truth and reconciliation process on the excesses of the insurgency period. While the NC and the Maoists appear to be accommodative towards the Madhes-related issues, the Madhes and Janjati groups will have to become more flexible and accept a layered approach towards their aspirations. Their demands are genuine but Nepal’s tangled political reality can be moulded only gradually. As far as the excesses of the insurgency period are concerned, the Maoists are not the only guilty party; the Nepal army and the government leaders of that time were equally responsible in contributing to human misery through violence and destruction. The victims of such excesses have to be adequately compensated and their psychological wounds healed by the society as a whole, but the ends of transitional justice cannot be met through political witch-hunting or selective criminalisation.

Among the other major challenges facing the new government are relief and rehabilitation of the quake affected areas, and economic development with good governance. For long, the issues related to quake reconstruction and relief have been used to reinforce political fiefdom and patronage. The new leadership will have to rise above this template and show greater efficiency and dedication. Nepal’s developmental and governance issues have also remained mired in corruption and bureaucratic lethargy. It remains to be seen if the new government will be able to make any difference in this respect.

India’s view

India may be rejoicing at Oli’s exit but there is no way New Delhi can be complacent about its Nepal policy. India may hope to turn Nepal away from its recently gained strategic proximity towards China, but that may be easier said than done. The reason is that China is determined to push itself strategically in South Asia and Nepal is a strong component in this approach. China has its well-crafted and attractive Belt and Road Initiative and it has the political will and economic muscle to back it to the hilt. If India itself is looking for Chinese investments, how can it dissuade any of its neighbours from welcoming tempting Chinese offers? Indian policy makers must learn from their recent experience in Sri Lanka where they tried their best to get the Chinese out of the Colombo Port City project but could not succeed. Even a substantial redefining of the project could not be achieved. For meeting the emerging Chinese challenge in South Asia, India has to improve its own delivery deficit and overall approach towards the issues of political transition in the neighbourhood. When India alienates its neighbours through its flip-flop approach, it can’t expect that China or any other country will not cash in on its lapses. Nepal is no exception. We have a new Nepal, a young and acutely self-conscious Nepal, an aspiring and ambitious Nepal. India cannot approach this Nepal with a ‘business as usual’ mind set.

Besides the bilateral dynamics of relations, India must speak with one voice on the unfolding issues of political transition in Nepal. For long, different stake holders in India have been speaking in divergent and even conflicting voices, thus keeping Nepal confused on what New Delhi really expects out of it. It would be counterproductive to mix up the issues of inclusive democracy and the rights of the Madhesis with the current ruling party’s agenda (or at least sections of it) of a Hindu state and revival of the monarchy. Nepal is itching to redefine the nature of its engagement with India and India must encourage Nepal to present a credible blue print of the aspired changed relationship in a manner that does not hurt India’s core security and developmental interests in Nepal. India has already done so in the case of Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The similar challenge in Nepal has to be met resolutely.

S.D. Muni is Professor Emeritus, JNU; Distinguished Fellow, IDSA, and a former Indian ambassador and special envoy of the Government of India