New faces in Nepal’s politics, a phase of change

With changes in Nepal’s Parliament, India and the rest of the international community will have to be recalibrating their ways of dealing with Kathmandu

December 05, 2022 12:16 am | Updated 01:20 am IST

Election commission staff checking a voter’s details during the general election in Kathmandu, Nepal

Election commission staff checking a voter’s details during the general election in Kathmandu, Nepal | Photo Credit: AP

On November 20, Nepal had its general elections, its second since the promulgation of the Nepal Constitution of 2015. This was also the first time in Nepal’s history that a parliament had completed a five-year tenure even though legislative activities were conducted for barely 18 months. The last elections saw communist forces uniting and sweeping the elections and relegating the Nepali Congress to a quiet opposition. There was no end to intra-party squabbles, which are a key feature of Nepali politics, and there was a split in the ruling party. What followed next were attempts to dissolve Parliament twice, but only to be reinstated by the Supreme Court. The President also became very active by becoming a part of the push for a dissolution of Parliament as well as not approving a citizenship bill.

The November 2022 parliamentary elections saw an awkward pre-poll alliance between the ruling coalition of Nepali Congress and the two communist parties that had split from the main Nepal Communist Party, i.e., the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Socialist). The alliance was awkward as it was during the Maoist insurgency that some of the biggest killings took place (when Sher Bahadur Deuba was the Prime Minister); the Maoist killed a large number of Nepali Congress cadres. The other pre-poll alliance was led by Communist Party of Nepal–Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) and comprised the Janata Samajwadi Party (a splinter group of the multiple combinations of the Madhesi parties) and the royalist Hindu nationalist Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP).

Nepal’s Parliament has 275 seats, with 165 under direct election from the First Past the Post (FPTP) and 110 through Proportional Representation (PR), for which each party submits a list prior to the elections. Voting is by using two separate ballot papers — voting for the candidate and then voting for the party. Now, 61% of the eligible 17,988,57 voters voted for the elections.

Making way for the new

The NC has won the largest number of seats, thus improving its tally when compared to last year — 86 seats now as compared to 63 seats in the last elections. The UML, which had won 121 seats in the last elections, could manage only 78 seats this time. The Maoist Centre that had 53 seats in the last Parliament had to be content with 31. The CPN-US which split from the UML is struggling to get the status of a national party as it has yet to bag 3% of the national votes required to be a national party and get nominations from the PR list. The CPN-US had 31 seats when it split from CPN-UML and is now down to 10.

The Royalist RPP won 14 seats, up from just one seat in Parliament, which is also an indication of the rise of right-wing politics in Nepal. The Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP) a party that was just registered five months ago, in July, and led by a television anchor Rabi Lamichhane, could get young independent candidates winspired by the wins of young independent politicians during the local elections held in May 2022. They managed to create an impact by winning 21 seats. Similarly, in the Terai, the Nepal Janamat Party led by C.K. Raut won just one seat directly but got four more seats, getting the status of a national party. Similarly, a new party in western Nepal, the Nagarik Unmukti Party, won three seats. One of the biggest outcomes of this year’s election is about how the Madhesi parties have lost their stronghold in the Terai, giving way to either new parties or the existing main parties.

The clear message

There are four messages. First, people were tired of the same faces that have been ruling Nepal in an arrangement akin to playing musical chairs, creating a coalition of convenience. They were willing to experiment with new set of leaders from existing parties as well as new parties.

Second, the independents have had a huge impact as people realised that elections could be fought on a shoe-string budget if one was a good communicator. They raised very simple issues of governance, tackling corruption, fighting privileges and just doing their job. The mascot for these independents was the Mayor of Kathmandu and Dharan, both independents trying to get a lot of work done.

Third, people did not agree fully on the coalition formula. They did not want to vote for the rival parties they were voting against for decades. For example, how could an NC cadre whose family had been killed by Maoists during the insurgency vote for the CPN-Maoist? For those who voted for their own party candidate in the direct polls PR decided to go with the independent party in PR voting as they did not like the way the PR lists were drawn up by their parties.

Fourth, Nepal does not allow people living outside the country to vote as all political parties have ben against allowing postal ballots. This time, people living outside Nepal pushed their family members to vote for independents and the RPP probably influenced by watching new and fireband leaders speaking on social media platforms.

What New Delhi must note

So, what does this mean for India? For New Delhi, it would be dealing with a new situation: of having to deal with a new set of faces after decades. This is a new generation of young Nepalis who see a world beyond India. They have been educated or worked outside the subcontinent. They are digitally connected to different parts of the globe For them, India is just another country.

India has always relied on its intelligence agencies or retired diplomats to be the interlocutors when it came to having reliable contacts in Nepal or understanding perspectives about Nepal. There is also a media gap; most media houses do not have a permanent correspondent in Nepal. And, social media has disrupted how information is created or consumed.

In a country where 70% of the population is under 40 years with 50% under 25 years, memories of the blockade still remain and has resulted in the alienation of an entire generation of Nepalis. For some people educated outside Nepal and who have returned, they cannot understand why India behaves in a certain way like when the Eminent Persons’ Group (EPG) report was debunked. Many of them who asked these questions are now in Parliament. They have also questioned the MCC grant and the different engagements by development partners in Nepal. India and the rest of the international community will have to be recalibrating their ways of dealing with Nepal.

Therefore, more engagement will be required to understand the new set of people, who are of course led by the old set. It will be also important to create a conducive environment for the exchange of ideas and people and set the stage for the next steps in relationship building.

Sujeev Shakya is the author of the books, ‘Unleashing Nepal’ and ‘Unleashing The Vajra’

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