South Asia

Nepali Prime Minister Oli Makes a Desperate Bid to Hang on 

The season of floods and landslides has given Oli an excuse to put off the Nepal Communist Party's standing committee meeting that was to decide his fate both as party chair and head of the country.

Kathmandu: Having continuously been in the position of party leadership since 1989, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ is not used to playing second fiddle to anyone. Yet that is exactly what he has been doing as the co-chairman of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP). As per their understanding, Prachanda was to handle all party affairs while K.P. Oli looked after the government it led. Yet Oli has been reluctant to give Prachanda a free hand in the party. This misunderstanding is at the heart of the current crisis of confidence in the NCP.

In this season of floods and landslides in Nepal, scores of people have already lost their lives in landslides in various mountainous districts. This gave Prime Minister Oli an excuse to put off the Nepal Communist Party standing committee meeting that was to decide his fate both as party chair and head of the country. He is now busy touring the country inspecting flood damages. His chief rival for the two posts, Prachanda, is doing the same.

The distance between Oli and his senior NCP colleagues like Prachanda, Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhala Nath Khanal has increased and this gulf will be tough to bridge. They have accused the prime minister of failing to contain the coronavirus crisis and overseeing a corrupt administration, because of which the party is losing its popular support. Oli is also blamed for trying to go it alone. When the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) and the Maoist Centre parties merged two years ago, the unstated agreement was that Oli and Prachanda would each get to be the prime minister for two-and-a-half years. But as the agreement’s deadline approached earlier this year, Oli refused to step aside as prime minister.

Then, there was another agreement between Oli and Prachanda, according to which, while Oli would look after government affairs, Prachanda would oversee overall party functioning. Yet Oli was actually in no mood to relinquish his grip on the party.

Prachanda (left) greets K.P. Sharma Oli. Photo: Reuters

Yanqi v Yankees

The criticism against Oli got louder on the face of his government’s abject failure to keep a lid on the coronavirus crisis. The private organisation it had awarded the tender to import vital medical equipment turned out to be grossly exaggerating the prices of the material it bought. The contract was cancelled after a public uproar. After that, the same contract went to the Nepal Army, which too failed to maintain financial transparency.

Then there was the US government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact, according to which Nepal would get $500 million in grants to build roads and transmission lines. The prime minister gave this agreement the go-ahead, even as most of his party colleagues were determined to foil it. His communist colleagues see the compact as evidence of American imperialism. They also see it is part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, which, in their view, has a clear military component aimed at containing China. The northern neighbour has been advising Nepal to ditch the compact, hinting that its passage by the Nepali parliament would harm Nepal-China relations. Nepal’s ruling party is close to its Chinese cousin. Most ruling party leaders do not want to spoil this communist bonhomie at any cost.

The common belief in Kathmandu, and in the Indian media, is that Chinese ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi has been making courtesy calls on the residences of top NCP leaders drumming up support for Oli’s continuity as prime minister. That is not an accurate reading. (Never mind the outrageous claim in some Indian media outlets that the Chinese envoy was trying to ‘honey trap’ Oli.) The Chinese are in fact not happy with Oli’s stand in favour of the MCC compact. But more than that, what they don’t want is for the NCP to break apart, and in the process lose their new ‘all-weather’, ‘stable’ ally in Nepal. Hou’s excursions are thus aimed more at forestalling the NCP split than in retaining Oli as prime minister.

But Oli has also intimated to Hou that if this party colleagues maneuver to remove him, he will not hesitate to split the party. Hou has been trying to persuade other party leaders to work things out with Oli and prevent the split.

Also Read: ‘Mudslinging Against PM Oli’: Nepal Cable Distributors Block Indian News Channels

India to Oli’s rescue

Oli’s chief weapon of survival is again India. When he was feeling besieged, New Delhi handed him a lifeline when Indian defence minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated a road in Lipulekh pass near the India-Nepal-China border tri-junction, in a territory Nepal claims. Kathmandu protested. The Indian army chief M.M. Naravane hinted the protest had come at China’s behest. Most Nepalis saw this insensitive – and plainly inaccurate – comment as part of the grand Indian design to gobble up Nepali territories in border regions. They wanted their government to give India a ‘fitting reply’.

Espying an opportunity to cut his opponents in the party down to size, Oli latched on to a new anti-India narrative and started pressing for the amendment of the constitution to incorporate the disputed territories in the Kalapani region, including the Lipulekh pass. The amendment passed and Oli was eager to take credit, when in fact it was the NCP which had decided to unanimously back the amendment. Even the opposition had unreservedly supported the amendment agenda.

Activists affiliated with ‘Human Rights and Peace Society Nepal’ holding placards protest near the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu, May 12, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar

Senior NCP leaders like Prachanda, Nepal and Khanal had had enough, and asked for Oli’s resignation from the posts of party chair and prime minister. Oli tried to deflect the blame by accusing them of trying to remove him at India’s behest. And that is the current state of play.

Prachanda thinks the time is ripe for him to be prime minister again. And Madhav Kumar Nepal is supporting him. Yet as the country is ravaged by water disasters, the NCP suspended its standing committee meeting for a week and Oli got himself some time to manoeuvre in order to salvage his government.

It will be hard to keep the NCP united if Oli refuses to renounce at least one of the two executive posts. But Oli has thrown down the gauntlet. If the party is to be kept intact, Prachanda has to satisfy himself with his current political role. If not, the party goes.

Also Read: The Kalapani Imbroglio: Has India Pushed Nepal Too Far?

One-trick pony

Prachanda had most reluctantly agreed to cede some authority to Oli, in the belief that his time would come. Now he is not so sure. Even if Oli is out of the picture, Prachanda’s elevation to PM or party chairmanship is not certain. There are other contenders too for these executive posts within the NCP, including two former prime ministers—Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhala Nath Khanal. Then there is Bamdev Gautam, another powerful leader who has time and again staked his claim as prime minister. They are with Prachanda today but he knows they are unreliable allies.

If Oli sees no prospect of hanging on to the prime minister’s chair, he has hinted he could give it to Sher Bahadur Deuba, the president of the main opposition Nepali Congress, rather than see it go to either Prachanda or Madhav Kumar Nepal, who conspired to bring him down. Deuba is salivating at the prospect. But then Oli could be courting Deuba just to keep his party colleagues honest.

Madhav Kumar Nepal. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/De Utudanuki – Trabajo propio CC BY SA 3.0

Prachanda has other things to consider. If he takes allies with his party colleagues to bring down Oli, and becomes the new prime minister, as he supposedly wants, would that be in his interest? As the government head, right at the outset, he will have to deal with the COVID-19 crisis, which is growing at a troubling rate. The economy is in a mess. People are confused and antsy. There is precious little he will be able to do to turn things around immediately. Would Prachanda like to govern at such a difficult time and destroy this future electability?

Won’t it be much better for him to continue in his current role as NCP co-chair and stake his claim to party chairman in the party general convention slated for 2021—especially as Oli has vowed not to run for chairman again? (Of course, Prachanda has to trust Oli when he says he won’t run again, especially if his health holds up.) As he weighs these options following the postponement of the standing committee meeting, Prachanda now says he does not want to “act in haste and repent at leisure.”

Prachanda’s personal calculations aside, the single issue of anti-Indian nationalism has carried Oli this far. He is betting that this one card, if played well, will make people overlook every other foible of his government; and that so long as he has public support, his party colleagues won’t dare to go against him. It’s a risky wager. He won’t have to wait for long to find out if it has paid off.

Biswas Baral is a Kathmandu-based journalist. He tweets @biswasktm