Fresh turmoil in Kathmandu

A year after Nepal suffered a devastating earthquake, political tremors rocked Kathmandu last week. Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli barely managed to stave off a looming crisis as his coalition partner, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)-UCPN(M), threatened to withdraw support. Nepal’s envoy in Delhi, Ambassador Deep Kumar Upadhyaya has been recalled; he had been appointed a year ago by former Prime Minister Sushil Koirala of the Nepali Congress (NC). President Bidhya Devi Bhandari’s maiden visit to India, scheduled to begin on May 9 has been cancelled; she was expected to visit Ujjain on May 14 with Prime Minister Narendra Modi to participate in a “Shahi Snan” during the ongoing Simhastha Kumbha festival. Meanwhile, senior officials close to Mr. Oli have openly blamed India for the conspiracy to topple the Oli government, leading to a further deterioration in the bilateral relationship.

Fractured internal politics

Last week, on May 4, UCPN (Maoist) leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda” gave vent to his unhappiness with the government’s performance on post-earthquake reconstruction and lack of progress on the constitutional amendment process; he announced that the Maoists were withdrawing support from the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) [UML]-led government. He added that he would lead a new government with NC and Madhesi support and invited other parties to join in a national consensus government. However, Mr. Prachanda’s real source of unhappiness was that the cases registered against the Maoist cadres during the insurgency had not been withdrawn despite repeated assurances by Mr. Oli.

NC leader Sher Bahadur Deuba had assured Mr. Prachanda of NC support and had suggested that the UDMF (Madhesi grouping) would be forthcoming. With 207 seats in a house of 601, the NC is the largest party with the UML and the Maoists following with 181 and 83 seats respectively. The Madhesis were expected to add another 30-plus seats, providing for a comfortable majority. Compared to Mr. Oli’s unwieldy coalition with six Deputy Prime Ministers including those from both Maoists and pro-monarchy parties, the NC’s support could have ensured a more stable government under Prachanda.

Rather than being reduced to a minority, Mr. Oli had decided to address the nation the following day and then hand in his resignation to Ms. Bhandari, his old comrade in arms from the UML whose election he had ensured last October. Under the circumstances, Ms. Bhandari’s visit to India had to be called off. His trusted aide, Bam Dev Gautam, who has always enjoyed close ties with the Maoists (he had been Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister in Prachanda’s cabinet in 2008-9) engaged in an exercise to woo back Maoist support.

Meanwhile, rumours began to do the rounds that the conspiracy to topple the Oli government had been cooked up with Indian help by Sher Bahadur Deuba. Mr. Deuba had been spending time in Delhi in connection with his wife’s medical treatment. Mr. Gautam played up the Indian angle knowing that Mr. Prachanda’s relations with India have never recovered since his ill-fated attempts to undermine the Nepal Army which brought his tenure as Prime Minister to a rather abrupt and ignominious end. However, like most Nepali politicians, Mr. Prachanda blames Delhi for the collapse of his coalition and the subsequent breakup of his party.

Playing musical chairs

Mr. Gautam pointed out that the NC could not be trusted because Mr. Deuba’s ambitions to become the Prime Minister were hardly a secret. Keeping UML-Maoist unity intact was a better option. Finally, he dangled the ultimate carrot — that Mr. Oli was keen to present one regular budget and once this was done in June, he would step down and the UML would support Mr. Prachanda as Prime Minister.

Within 24 hours, Mr. Prachanda had ditched Mr. Deuba and switched positions. A new nine point agreement between the Maoists and the UML — which commits the Oli government to granting clemency to Maoist cadres, providing compensation to the injured and others who lost their livelihoods, facilitating land allotments, bringing in controversial transitional justice provisions pending for over a decade, and ensuring close consultation with regard to government appointments — had been concluded. The agreement also provides for accelerating reconstruction work and addressing Madhesi demands at the earliest though it is clear that the Oli government is in no mood to move forward in this regard.

Mr. Prachanda is confident that if Mr. Oli does not deliver in the next two months, he can always withdraw support and do a deal with the NC again though this time, Mr. Deuba may want to strike a tougher bargain. The Nepal envoy, Mr. Upadhyaya, who had just completed a difficult year, became collateral damage because it was rumoured that he had been part of the Deuba-India hand conspiracy and anyway, was an NC appointee. He had advised against cancelling Ms. Bhandari’s visit leading to speculation that he was part of the conspiracy hatched by Mr. Deuba with the Indian authorities.

Mr. Oli knows that his reprieve is going to be a brief one and sooner rather than later, Mr. Prachanda will be knocking at the doors of Baluwatar (the Prime Minister’s residence). He is unlikely to complete a year in office continuing the vicious cycle of political instability that has afflicted Nepal in recent years. Mr. Oli is the eighth Prime Minister since 2008 when the first Constituent Assembly was elected and his tenure has been a spectacular failure. He came to power after a new Constitution had been adopted but instead of using his political authority to push through the necessary amendments and get the alienated Madhesis on board, he dug in his heels. He blamed India for backing the Madhesi agitation and imposing an economic blockade on Nepal. His assurances to Mr. Modi during his visit to India recently remain unfulfilled. The Madhesi agitation may have been called off but there is simmering discontent and unrest across the Terai.

Oli’s dysfunctional politics

In this atmosphere of political uncertainty and a dysfunctional government, Nepal’s reconstruction efforts have suffered. A reconstruction authority was expected to coordinate international assistance but political wrangling delayed its setting up by more than six months. A ‘Post-Disaster Needs Assessment’ report prepared last June estimated the total economic loss at $7 billion. At the following international donor’s conference, a generous sum of $4.4 billion was pledged by more than 30 countries and 19 multilateral agencies.

However, there is a strong sense of frustration among the donor community because the Nepal government has been unable to put systems in place for disbursement of the pledges because of politics. As a result, not even one per cent of the pledges has been delivered and in some cases, budgetary cycles will probably take a toll on the pledges made 10 months ago.

Mr. Oli’s tenure has also witnessed a steep downturn in relations with India. Like his coalition partner Mr. Prachanda, he has sought to bolster legitimacy by deliberately stoking nationalist sentiment and blaming India for his problems, both political and economic, and flaunting the China card. Prithvi Narayan Shah who had unified Nepal more than two and a half centuries ago had famously described Nepal “as a yam between two boulders”.

Unfortunately, Nepali politicians have taken this description to heart without realising that the 21st century is no longer an age of empires! Many economists and businessmen who have been looking at investment opportunities in Nepal have been talking of “connectivity” and the advantages that could accrue to Nepal from its “bridge diplomacy”. Yet, Nepal’s political leadership continues to be seduced by Prithvi Narayan Shah’s outdated phrase.

After visiting India, Mr. Oli undertook a much publicised visit to China in March. Among the slew of agreements signed, the most publicised was that on transit which permits use of Chinese ports for transit of goods to Nepal. Yet one look at a map makes it clear that this cannot change the dictates of geography. China can fund power generation projects in Nepal and also provide concessional funding for expanding Pokhara airport (and India would welcome this engagement) but China will never allow an open border between Nepal and Tibet for visa-free travel!

Mr. Oli may be on his way out but the Indian government also needs to introspect about why Mr. Modi’s “neighbourhood first” policy has backfired in Nepal, after having gotten off to a splendid start when he visited Nepal in 2014 and laid out the contours of the relationship that he wanted to develop. Since then, relations have soured and perceptions have turned hostile. Mr. Modi needs to find a Nepal policy that can resurrect the image of India that he had successfully presented — of a friendly and caring India, sensitive to Nepal’s concerns, and generous in seeking mutually beneficial partnerships.

Rakesh Sood was Indian Ambassador to Nepal between 2008 and 2011, and is presently Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. E-mail: rakeshsood2001@yahoo.com

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Printable version | Nov 29, 2021 6:15:31 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Fresh-turmoil-in-Kathmandu/article14308807.ece

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