Playing the long game in Nepal

Playing the long game in Nepal

On December 20, Nepal’s President Bidya Devi Bhandari dissolved the House of Representatives on the advice of Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli and announced fresh elections to be held in April-May. The dissolution of parliament more than a year ahead of the completion of its five-year term has plunged Nepal into yet another crisis.

Bitter infighting in the ruling Nepal Communist Party, which underlies Oli’s decision to dissolve the lower house of parliament has triggered a split in the party. Nepal is likely to struggle with political instability, which will provide external powers an opportunity to meddle in the domestic affairs of this strategically located country.

Oli’s decision to recommend dissolution of parliament has been widely criticised as “unconstitutional and undemocratic.”

The 2015 Constitution provides for the early dissolution of parliament but only in the event of a hung assembly and if no party is able to form a government. This was not the situation when Oli made the recommendation to the President as the NCP had a near two-thirds majority in the now-dissolved house.

The NCP was formed in 2018 after Nepal’s two largest communist parties, the Oli-led Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) (CPN-UML) and the Pushpa Kamal Dahal-led Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center) (CPN-MC) merged. Oli and Dahal had made a deal then under which they agreed to share power; they would be prime minister for two-and-a-half years each and also share power in running party affairs. However, Oli reneged, ceding neither prime ministership nor chairmanship of the party.

Oli’s authoritarian style and misgovernance have led to his growing isolation in the NCP over the last two years. Pressure on him to step down or at least share power mounted in recent months. Interestingly, it is from within his party that most of the challenges to his leadership have come.

To avoid a vote of no-confidence that NCP parliamentarians were reportedly planning to introduce in parliament, Oli prorogued parliament in July. Facing a similar predicament over a controversial ordinance and fearing he would lose a floor test as he lacked support of NCP parliamentarians, Oli called for dissolution of parliament this time around.

Mass protests against Oli’s decision have erupted on the streets of Kathmandu. Several petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court as well. Oli’s disregard for constitutional provisions found endorsement from President Bhandari. Will the Supreme Court follow suit or will it uphold the Constitution?

The apex court’s decision will be known in a fortnight. If it rules that Oli’s decision was unconstitutional, he will have to step down as prime minister. If not, the interim government, which he heads, will continue till elections.

Oli’s critics fear that general election, which are scheduled for April-May may not be held on time. Adept at dodging democratic processes, he could defer the polls on some pretext. Should that happen, Nepal’s fledgling democracy will be further undermined.

Even if elections are held on time, it is unlikely to produce a clear mandate, which means that Nepal is staring at a prolonged period of political instability.

Instability in Nepal is of serious concern to India.

The split in the NCP has been widely interpreted in India as a setback for China. China had played an important role in the merger of Nepal’s communist parties and in the formation of the NCP government. Consequently, its influence over the Oli government was high. Not only did Beijing’s role in Nepal’s economy grow dramatically -- 90% of FDI into Nepal comes from China – but also, Nepal’s foreign policy under Oli was decidedly pro-China and hostile to India.

Chinese intervention in Nepal’s domestic politics surged over the past year, with its ambassador in Kathmandu, Hou Yanqi, who enjoys direct access to Nepali leaders including Bhandari and Oli, repeatedly intervening to mediate between NCP leaders to hold the government together. That her mediation efforts failed is being perceived as a defeat for China, and thus a victory for India.

However, it may be too early for India to celebrate.

China has not given up on its self-appointed role as mediator in Nepal; since the dissolution of the house, Ambassador Hu has been engaging in long discussions with Bhandari and the other actors in the ongoing drama. China has big ambitions in Nepal. It will not give up on these easily and can be expected to continue attempts at shaping a government favourable to its interests.

Meanwhile, India’s foreign policy and security establishment is yet to recover from the shock of Oli’s decision. Only recently, Indian officials were patting themselves on their back for having managed to win over Oli and re-setting relations with his government. Didn’t Indian intelligence agencies in Nepal not foresee Oli’s move?

Like the Chinese, India prioritises stability over democracy in Nepal and thus would not be unhappy with Oli remaining at the helm, so long as he restores friendly relations with India. But is this in India’s interest?

It may be recalled that in mid-2006 when tens of thousands of Nepali people and political parties flooded the streets demanding an end to the monarchy, India continued to chant its old mantra of support to the “twin pillars” of the country’s constitutional monarchy and multiparty democracy. Its policy at that point seemed deaf to the cries of the masses and out of sync with the public mood.

Will its policy in the coming months reflect a similar insensitivity to the prevailing mood in Nepal? Backing the authoritarian rule of K P Oli may give India a temporary advantage over China in their battle for influence in Nepal. But it may not benefit India in the long-term. Public opposition to Oli is high.

Indian analysts like to label Nepali politicians and parties as being “pro-India” or “pro-China”. But such labels are not useful in crafting long-term policy as Nepali politicians tilt one way or the other depending on which side the wind is blowing at any time. Dahal has been pro-India and anti-India in the past, as has Oli. The possibility of the supposedly “pro-India” Sher Bahadur Deuba, leader of the Nepali Congress, joining hands with Oli or Dahal to form a government in the coming months cannot be ruled out.

Backing Oli because he has shown signs of tilting towards India is therefore a bad idea. Having burnt their fingers by supporting Oli for over two years, the Chinese seem to have moved on to wooing Dahal.

Nepali politics is in a state of flux. New Delhi has done well so far to maintain a low profile and a non-interfering stance. It will do well to wait for the Supreme Court ruling and watch how things begin to unfold before deciding on its next steps.

(The writer is a foreign policy and security analyst based in Bengaluru)

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