Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Oli | From the Jhapa revolt to the seat of power

The Nepal Prime Minister used nationalism as a plank and opposed identity-based devolution of power to consolidate his position

Updated - June 21, 2020 01:02 pm IST

Published - June 20, 2020 09:21 pm IST

Khadga Prasad Oli knows the meaning of ups and downs that very few politicians in this part of the world have experienced. The Prime Minister of Nepal and the Chairman of the Nepal Communist Party is today at the helm of one of the most stable governments in the country since it moved away from absolute monarchy in 1990, after having become the Prime Minister for the second time in February 2018. It is almost an anomaly for a government to last more than two years without turbulence or a shuffling of the decks of power in Nepal, which has seen 25 different governments led by 13 individuals as Prime Minister. Only Girija Prasad Koirala of the Nepali Congress had a longer uninterrupted tenure for three and a half years from May 1991 to November 1994.

Mr. Koirala was among the key leaders in the first Jan Andolan that marked the end of absolute monarchy . Mr. Oli, on the other hand, did not quite represent the forces of change during the second Jan Andolan that helped accelerate the demise of the institution of monarchy itself. But he did manoeuvre himself into becoming the dominant voice of the status quo as the post-monarchy polity fought bitterly over versions of a federal, democratic republic.

It is this role of being the most committed voice against greater devolution of power based on identity and that of a figure representing “Nepalese nationalism” that has catapulted Mr. Oli into his current role as the Prime Minister, who orchestrated the change of Nepal’s official map by adding 335 sq. km to its territory. This decision has exacerbated a recent strain in relations with India with whom Nepal shares intricate and dependent ties, but which have slowly eroded over time.

Born in 1952 in the hilly Tehrathum region of eastern Nepal into a Kumaoni Brahmin farming family, Mr. Oli migrated to Jhapa in the Terai plains in south-eastern Nepal as a 10 year old while his father pursued better prospects. Thrust into the communist party as a young teenage activist, Mr. Oli as a 19 year old was soon participating in a violent movement against the Panchayat regime that was inspired by the Naxalbari agitations in India. Naxalbari wasn’t very far from Jhapa. The Jhapa movement organising armed rebellions was short-lived and put down by the government quickly. Mr. Oli, a foot-soldier in this movement, was sentenced to prison in 1973 and remained in jail for 14 years, which included, according to him, long periods of solitary confinement.

Unlike the Naxalite parties that underwent splits and declined over time, the factions that organised the Jhapa movement merged into a larger party — the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist). It brought together functionaries who believed in the parliamentary path and were later engaged in struggles to transform Nepal’s governance from an absolute monarchy into a democratic and constitutional monarchy. The UML’s role in the first Jan Andolan helped it become a major political force, second only to the Nepali Congress. By the 1990s, the UML had committed itself firmly into parliamentary politics. The UML, which lost its prominent leader Madan Bhandari in a car accident also enjoyed short stints in power. Mr. Oli served as the Minister of Home Affairs in Manmohan Adhikari’s cabinet between November 1994 and September 1995.

Changes in polity

The rise of the Maoist movement from the mid-1990s, the royal massacre in 2001, the return to absolute monarchy under Gyanendra in late 2002 all paved the way for significant changes in Nepal’s polity, leading up to the second Jan Andolan in 2006 led by a coalition of forces that included the mainstream parties and the Maoists. This coalition was forged with Indian support and soon Nepal became a republic. In the elections leading up to the new constituent assembly, Mr. Oli lost in two constituencies and the UML finished third behind the Maoists and the Nepali Congress. The polity following the CA elections developed fissures on two distinct questions — the integration/rehabilitation of Maoist combatants into Nepal’s security forces and the federal restructuring of the country. On both these questions, Mr. Oli presented a strident line of opposition. In 2014, Mr. Oli became the party chairman of the UML and opposed any concession to the Madhesi aspirations of identity-based devolution of power and restructuring.

Mr. Oli became Prime Minister for the first time on October 11, 2015 as yet another turbulent period over the state restructuring issue came about. The Madhesis launched an agitation that resulted in an embargo over goods transit to the hills via the plains from India and this was tacitly supported by the Indian establishment. The move fuelled anger and a nationalist surge in the capital. As Prime Minister, Mr. Oli visited China in 2016 and signed a number of pacts, which included a transit and transport agreement.

Using Nepalese nationalism, loosely translated into a strong position against Indian interference in the country, as a plank, Mr. Oli emerged as the most popular leader in the hills and he consolidated his position following a decisive victory for the UML in the 2017 parliamentary elections with support from the Pushpa Kumar Dahal-led Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre). In a significant move, the UML and the CPN(MC) merged into the Nepal Communist Party, garnering a two thirds majority in Parliament after Mr. Oli entered his second stint as Prime Minister.

The China factor

The NCP’s tenure in power has seen greater expansion of ties between Nepal and its northern neighbour, with China increasing aid and participation in development projects.

The Indian government released a new political map in November 2019, following the changes in the status of Jammu and Kashmir, which removed the label “Kali river”. This, besides the inauguration of a road towards Lipu Lek in what Nepal considers its territory, raised the hackles of the Nepali government. Soon, Mr. Oli, giving voice to resentment within Nepal about the disputed status of Kalapani, promoted the move to redraw Nepal’s official map, showing Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Lipulekh of Uttarakhand as part of its sovereign territory. This move was ratified by both Houses of Parliament in Nepal and led to a new impasse with the Indian government, which refused any dialogue following what it termed a “unilateral gesture”.

Nepal has considerably diversified relations beyond its deep ties with India but history has shown that close ties between the two countries have been beneficial for both. Mr. Oli has yet again consolidated his position in Nepal’s fragile polity, but how his brinkmanship resulting in antagonism in ties with India will play itself out can only be answered in the medium term.

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