What happens when a nation’s parliament is dissolved despite the government enjoying huge majority, when the ruling party splits and the prime minister is expelled? And what surmise can one draw from an avowed communist like the “caretaker” prime minister K P Sharma Oli, visits Pashupatinath temple and offer ‘special’ Puja?
Although communists visiting places of worship is not unknown in South Asia, in Nepal, Oli, part of a violent rebellion that ended the monarchy, did it for the first time. Past communist prime ministers Manmohan Adhikari, Madhav Kumar Nepal, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Baburam Bhattarai and Jhala Nath Khanal never visited the temple during their tenures and some of them had even refused to take the oath of office “in the name of god”.
Inevitably, the temple visit has sparked speculation about Oli seeking support from pro-Hindu and pro-monarchy elements that have laid low for long. Their known protagonist, Rastriya Prajatantra Party had a nominal representation of one during Oli’s first stint as prime minister from October 2015 to August 2016. The party’s leader, Kamal Thapa, was deputy prime minister and foreign minister.
Nepal has overwhelming Hindu majority. Can or will a Maoist pave the way for revival of monarchy that ended in 2006?
Is that a red-herring or shape of things to come, ask those who lament the ‘failure’ of Nepal’s democratic experiment.
Too many things are happening in Nepal these days that defy easy comprehension. Some are comparable, others are contradictory. The Himalayan nation experiences unprecedented political turmoil amidst a raging pandemic and intense diplomatic power-play that concern relations with the two big neighbours, India and China. The two are crucial to Nepal as Nepal is to them in these times of a renewed cold war.
The communists won power in 2018 after the two parties merged with Oli and Pushpa kmal Dahal Prachand joining forces. The deal was that they would be prime ministers by rotation. Oli did not want to shed office and had been resisting holding parties to resolve the matter for the past many weeks. Even granting the erratic ways of the Nepalese political class, the split in the NCP was also indicative of a systemic collapse.
As things appeared to reach a point of no return within the party, Oli staged a political coup, perhaps the only way out open to him since he did not want to shed power. He suddenly dissolved the parliament. The constitutional validity of his action is being challenged before its apex court and with many parties and petitioners before the apex court, it could take long to resolve the matter. The elections have perforce have to wait, unless the pex court moves swiftly.
Thus, although Oli has indicated holding of elections during April 30-May 10 this year, there are serious doubts about his intensions as well. The split in the ruling party and his own expulsion has raised prospects of his reviving the CPN (Marxist-Leninist) and of violence on the streets.
During months of internal party tussle, the Chinese ambassador to Nepal was a regular visitor to Oli that sparked the talk of the lady trying hard to prevent a split in the party. After all, Oli had merged his Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist) with the Maoists to form the Nepal Communist Party in a deal brokered by China three years back.
Those were also the months when Oli stridently criticised India and accused New Delhi of trying to topple him. Oli had also been accused of moving closer to China and drifting away from Nepal’s traditional partner, India, since taking power. The Oli government issued new maps showing areas in dispute with India as Nepal’s territory. He accused Prachand of hobnobbing with India.
Things have suddenly changed after parliament’s dissolution. Now Prachand says Oli did this at India’s prompting and that Delhi wants to keep the turmoil going to derive diplomatic and political advantage.
Now, it is Oli’s turn to get “India-friendly.” The contentious maps have been withdrawn. Oli has changed the diplomatic approach towards India. It’s the reverse of the stringent line in 2019, when much to India’s annoyance, the first political map with Kashmir and Ladakh as states had been released with the mention of Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura.
The tone of Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyavali and his team was vastly different at the sixth meeting of the India-Nepal Joint Commission, co-chaired by Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and his Nepalese counterpart Pradeep Kumar Gyawali, held on January 15 in New Delhi. Gyawali denied his government being under influence of any foreign power.
For good measure, he openly preferred the readily available Indian vaccine against Covid-19 to the Chinese that is not yet ready. New Delhi, helping out the entire neighbourhood anyway, gifted one lakh doses. Oli himself thanked Indian counterpart Narendra Modi for the making the entire scenario of health diplomacy an important cornerstone of fixing the past issues of ambiguity and apprehension.
With India-baiting rested — for now — it is time for elections, whenever they take place. There could be realignment of forces. Oli had earlier merged his party with the Maoists to pre-empt an alliance between the latter and the Nepali Congress. Now, there are reports that Oli will seek support from the Nepali Congress and. remain at the helm of power.
Reports from Kathmandu indicate that the Nepal Army that plays a significant presence in the country’s polity, has made it clear that it will remain neutral in the ongoing political developments. Whether it will resist Oli’s likely attempts to use security forces to quell street protests and any violence during electioneering remains to be seen.
Nepal seems to be its summer of discontent amidst political uncertainties and economic stress caused by the Covid-19 that has hurt tourism, its main money-spinner.