Kathmandu: The writing had been on the wall for the Nepali Congress (NC) for some time. The largest party in the second Constituent Assembly elected in 2013 – and the party that has, since its formation in 1950, been at the vanguard of all popular movements in Nepal – was struggling in the run up to the recent provincial and federal elections. It was struggling because its leader, three-time prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, had failed to articulate a single clear electoral policy. Missing a central agenda, Congress leaders instead tried to demonise their chief opponent, the recently formed Left Alliance, a strategy that backfired badly.
Earlier, the announcement of an alliance between K.P. Sharma Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxists Leninists (CPN-UML) and Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda’s Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center), with an eventual merger on the cards, had come as a complete shock. Until recently, the leaders of the two parties had been at each other’s throats as each tried to project itself as the only ‘genuine’ communist force in the country, and thus to monopolise the sizable leftist vote bank. The rank and file of the parties were kept completely in the dark about the alliance, and it was not hard to surmise that the partnership had pure electoral logic – the consolidation of divided left votes – the purported ‘ideological proximity’ acting as no more than a convenient smokescreen.
Badly shaken by this announcement of left unity between the second and third biggest political parties in parliament, the Nepali Congress quickly set about cobbling together a ‘democratic alliance’ of its own with the support of Madhesi parties. The problem was that, in desperation, it embraced not just the Madhesi groups but also various hues of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) that have been campaigning for the restoration of monarchy and a Hindu state.
This messaging confused voters. The NC claimed to be the chief usher of all progressive changes in Nepal in recent times. But then it was entering an alliance with parties whose main agenda was to roll back all recent changes, including federalism and secularism. Moreover, it appeared Deuba had no vision about how to take the country forward under the new federal dispensation, which has become operational after the recent elections.
Rather than talk about their own strength, Congress leaders on the campaign trail chose to raise the bogey of a ‘communist takeover’ of the Nepali state. However, with both UML and the Maoists well-established as legitimate electoral contenders, few people bought into this scaremongering about totalitarianism.
But perhaps the biggest reason people rejected the NC this time has to do with the 2015-16 shutdown of the Nepal-India border. As the Congress has always been close to New Delhi, its leaders were at the time seen as mincing their words in condemning the ‘Indian blockade’. But while they vacillated, Oli and his comrades felt no such qualms. They openly blamed India for bringing misery to Nepalis.
Deuba and company were seen as weak and doing ‘India’s bidding’. In contrast, Oli came across as a strong nationalist leader who was not afraid to call a spade a spade. Oli, the blockade-time prime minister, got the credit for courageously standing up to the ‘Indian bully’.
Oli back then also signed the landmark trade and transit agreements with China. These agreements ended Nepal’s total dependency on Indian ports for business with third countries and put paid – at least in terms of optics if not reality – to India’s monopoly on the supply of fuel. Both these acts were seen favorably by Nepalis who had felt humiliated by India’s highhandedness during the standoff. India-bashing has traditionally been a foolproof electoral strategy in Nepal, and Oli milked it.
Perhaps Prachanda, who has long since abandoned his revolutionary zeal, also realised that it would for the moment be wise to align with Oli and try to steal some of his thunder. On the campaign trail, Prachanda was seen as openly projecting Oli as the new prime minister. Apparently, the deal is that while Oli will lead the country, Prachanda will head the new party formed after the left merger. (A more cynical interpretation is that Prachanda is looking for Oli, who has multiple heath issues, to step down sooner rather than later so that he can then become the undisputed communist leader in Nepal.)
Speculations are rife that with the Left alliance poised for at least a simple majority, and very likely a two-thirds majority, the new government under Oli will firmly align with China. But this would be an over-simplification of the ground realities in Nepal. Oli understands very well – as does Prachanda, who in 2009 lost his prime minister’s chair after angering India – that no government in Nepal can afford to be seen as openly anti-India. Former Indian foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon rightly refuses to label Oli ‘pro-China’ and thinks of him as ‘just another politician doing whatever is convenient to get to power’.
Oli, who was until a few years ago among India’s most trusted lieutenants in Kathmandu, embraced the pro-China nationalist image because he knew it would pay off electorally. But once in power, he will not need to be so openly hostile to India and will, in all likelihood, make efforts to mend his frayed ties with New Delhi, safe in the knowledge that there is no immediate threat to his government.
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Also, these days, it is hard to find an ‘anti-China’ political outfit in Nepal. Even within the Nepali Congress there is now a big constituency that believes Nepal’s national interest is best served by maintaining a well-calibrated distance from both India and China, and that Nepal’s ‘special relation’ with India is losing its salience. So it would be wrong to see the new left alliance as ‘pro-China’, as if the NC these days is ‘anti-China’.
India would thus do well to welcome the new left government, which promises to herald an era of long-desired political stability. If India makes an effort to mend ties, Oli, the consummate politician that he is, will reciprocate, and there is no reason Nepal-India relations, badly damaged by the blockade, cannot come back on an even keel. Stability in Kathmandu would also help New Delhi chart out a clear long-term Nepal policy.
But what of the fear that the Left coalition is intent on establishing a communist dictatorship? Even Congress leaders who accuse Oli of harbouring dictatorial tendencies perhaps don’t quite believe that. Nepal’s precarious geopolitical situation makes that impossible. India won’t look kindly on it. Nor have the Chinese in any way hinted of their preference for such a government. All China has been saying all these years is that it wants a stable government in Kathmandu. If the Left coalition gets a two-thirds majority, coupled with more restrictive constitutional provisions on the filing of no-confidence motions, Nepal could well have a stable government without having to resort to dictatorial means. China, which has assiduously cultivated the Nepali Congress in recent times, also knows that the party is only one election away from power.
Rather than autocracy, with some corrupt and criminal-minded politicians elected this time, the bigger fear is that the new government will be a kleptocracy that only works for vested interests in lucrative sectors like education and medicine. But if there is some skepticism, there is also a lot of hope — hope that the new federal set-up will finally help realise the age-old dream of decentralisation of power and resources away from Kathmandu. There are still misgivings on the part of the Madhesis and it is essential that the new government address these with an open mind and broad spirit.
With the successful holding of all three sets of constitutionally-mandated elections, the long political transition that started with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Accord between the government and the Maoists in 2006 has formally ended. There is now tremendous pressure on the big parties to take the country on the path of peace and prosperity, and work towards the realisation of Nepal’s goal of ‘graduating’ from the ranks of the Least Developed Countries by 2022.
It is true that not all political questions have been settled. But the new constitution is an evolving document, and will change with the country’s changing needs. What the recent elections have done is put the country firmly on the path charted by the new constitution. Not everyone may approve of this new path. Yet the forces that wanted to subvert the constitution have been silenced, at least for the time being.
Biswas Baral is a Kathmandu-based journalist. He tweets @biswasktm.