South Asia

Oli’s Endgame in Nepal: Mixed Blessings, Persisting Perceptions

The biggest challenge for the political class will be to collectively work out a compromise that addresses the grievances of the marginalised communities, one that has the support of the CPN-UML.

Nepal's Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli observing a minute of silence for earthquake victims. Credit: Reuters

Nepali Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli observing a minute of silence for earthquake victims. Credit: Reuters

In order to save his government from an imminent collapse, Nepali Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli struck a devil’s bargain with the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), his main coalition partner, on May 5.

The nine-point agreement between the prime minister’s Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxists Leninists (CPN-UML) and the Maoists provided, in a roundabout way, blanket amnesty for human rights abusers over the decade-long Maoist insurgency. This was done in order to save the Maoist leaders, possibly even chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, popularly known as Prachanda, from being implicated in war crimes. Senior Maoist leaders were jittery ever since India started raising the issue of transitional justice in Nepal at various international forums, apparently to scare the Maoists into toeing its line on the new Nepali constitution.

In return for such blanket amnesty, Dahal promised to continue to support the Oli government and to allow it to bring about the budget.

There was also a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ between the two parties, whereby Oli would step down after the passage of the annual budget by the Nepali parliament. After this, Dahal would get to lead the new government. But when Oli refused to step down even after the passage of the budget, the Maoists had no option but to rethink their support.

The two primary reasons for the fall of the Oli government are thus his inability to follow through with the (untenable) commitment of blanket amnesty for Maoist leaders and Dahal’s desire to be the prime minister for a second time. The long delay in getting help to the victims of the 2015 earthquake, the government’s inability to tame runaway inflation and Oli’s unwillingness to take Madheshi forces into confidence were some of the other, secondary, reasons.

Blessing in disguise

But the dogged Oli will not go without a fight. He has already made it clear that he will prefer to face a vote of no-confidence in parliament rather than meekly resign. Taking advantage of some vague clauses in the new constitution, he will also question the legal ground for his removal.

Rather than weakening the CPN-UML, many believe Oli’s forced removal could be a blessing in disguise for the party. For one, his removal will go down well with the party’s core constituencies up in the hills, who will see the situation as a Nepali prime minister, who courageously stood up to a ‘bullying’ India during the four-and-a-half months of the border blockade, forced out of office because of ‘direct Indian intervention’. ‘#ISUPPORTOLI’ began to trend on Twitter soon after news of the Maoist pull-out broke.

True, India might have had a hand. It was clearly unhappy with Oli, someone seemingly keen to cultivate China as a counterweight and who was projected as the bête noir of the Madheshi parties. This was why India had supported the last (aborted) attempt of the Maoists to bring down the Oli government back in May. India’s suspicions were further heightened when the Chinese, breaking from their old script of a strictly hands-off policy in Nepal, decided to intervene in Kathmandu for the retention of the Oli government.

One thing is for sure – this time, the impending ouster of Oli, after only nine months in office, will only reinforce the old perception that it is suicidal for a government in Nepal to be seen as working against Indian interest. This will be the case even though the CPN-UML’s hand might in the long run be strengthened by its recent distinctly nationalist, anti-India posture. Pretty much the same applies to the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal, the pro-monarchy and anti-federalism force that is also a constituent of the Oli government. In fact, on the eve of the three sets of elections – local, provincial and federal – planned for the next 20 months, playing up the ‘India-victim’ card might be the single biggest electoral draw of the political parties that were represented in the Oli rainbow coalition.

What next?

According to the 7-point agreement between the Maoists and Nepali Congress signed on July 12, there will now be a coalition government under Maoist leadership. This government will make way for a Congress-led government after 10 months.

More significantly, the agreement states that the new government will take the initiative to address the demands of the Madheshis, Tharus and Janajatis by amending the constitution based on political negotiations. Although the new coalition under Dahal will look to garner the support of the broadest segment of the Nepali polity, it is unlikely to include the CPN-UML.

The Congress wants to keep the CPN-UML, traditionally its arch electoral rival, out of government during the three sets of elections. (In the past the CPN-UML has been rather adept at turning control over state resources into solid electoral gains.) The CPN-UML will also opt to stay out to accentuate its victimhood to India.

After ten months of Dahal it will be the turn of the Congress president, Sher Bahadur Deuba, to become prime minster. With local level elections – the first of the three sets – slated for November-December sure to be postponed because of a lack of preparations, Deuba could lead his party into all three electoral cycles. This will be a mixed blessing. While the Congress will surely look to leverage state resources to its electoral advantage, it will also have to contend with a traditional anti-incumbency trend in Nepal.

Wrest the initiative

It will also be strange to see India back a Dahal-led government, as seems to be the case. New Delhi, after all, was instrumental in not only bringing down his government in 2009 after only only nine months in power, but also in engineering a split in the Maoist party in order to isolate its radical wing. Although India doesn’t completely trust the forever-vacillating Dahal, it will likely go along with his candidacy if there is clear commitment to accommodate the Madheshis. In fact no one would be surprised if there is a tacit understanding between the Indian establishment and the Maoists that India will drop its demands on transitional justice if the Maoists support Madheshi agendas.

But it would be counterproductive for either India or the Congress-Maoist combine in Nepal to now try to isolate the CPN-UML. Firstly, India’s enmity goes down well among the CPN-UML’s targeted vote banks. India should thus not do anything to further fan pro-CPN-UML and anti-India sentiments in Nepal. Secondly, it will be impossible to amend the constitution without the support of the CPN-UML, which has nearly a third of all seats in the national parliament.

Thus, the biggest challenge for the political class in Kathmandu will be to collectively work out a political compromise that addresses the grievances of the traditionally marginalised communities while also ensuring that such a compromise has the support of the CPN-UML. One possible way out could be for the four major political forces in Nepal – the Congress, CPN-UML, Maoists and Madheshi parties — to agree on a new federal model that at least partly addresses the demands of the protesting Madheshis and Tharus, say through land swaps in the current seven-state model.

Of course, not all of them need to be in the government for this. With a workable constitutional settlement at hand, the political parties can then use this new political goodwill to create an atmosphere for free and fair elections.

This is a wonderful opportunity for domestic political actors in Nepal to wrest the initiative and come up with an inclusive constitutional settlement. Such a settlement will be the single biggest step towards political stability in Nepal, leading, ultimately, to less foreign interference and more peace and prosperity.

Biswas Baral is a Kathmandu-based journalist who writes on Nepal’s foreign policy. He tweets at @biswasktm.