Next Door Nepal: Waiting for a government

By Yubaraj Ghimire (25 December 2017) – K. P. Oli, the man likely to take over as Nepal’s next prime minister, flew down to Rasuagarhi on the Nepal-Tibet Border with Ishwar Pokharel, general secretary of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML), last Tuesday. He made no political speeches during the few hours he spent there, but chose to give a significant message: “The train will pass from here.”

China is keen that its railway service pass through the point Oli talked about at Rasuagarhi and go right up to Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha. We do not know how serious Oli is about pursuing the project. Several formalities have to be completed as well. But India, which perceives Oli as pro-China and anti-India, has reasons to find his gesture too “provocative”. New Delhi could well read in that gesture at Rasuagarhi, a message that Oli will take steps to deepen ties with China after he takes over as PM — much like what he did during his last tenure.

A team of high-level Chinese officials and experts recently completed an inspection trip in Nepal for the construction of a China-Nepal railway route. A team of 23 Chinese experts led by Zheng Jian, deputy director of the National Railway Administration of China, completed a field trip of prospective railway routes in Nepal. Oli is clearly a man in hurry to take over, and work closely with China on developmental activities.

More than two weeks after the poll results gave a landslide victory to the Left Alliance consisting of UML and the Maoists, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modicalled Oli, the Maoist chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal and care-taker prime minister Sher Bahdur Deuba, separately. In a conversation that lasted about 20 minutes, Modi not only invited Oli to India but also said India was keen to work with Nepal for common prosperity. But the trust deficit between Nepal’s Left Alliance under Oli and Modi is unlikely to be erased in the near future. The alliance’s landslide victory is largely seen as a result of the anger against the five-month long economic blockade imposed by India in 2015-2016.

Whether Oli wants to continue harping on the blockade for further political gain is something that his future politics will show. Some actors belonging to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, who wrote Nepal’s political agenda in 2006, and India’s Left, are clearly happy with the electoral outcome in Nepal. They have warned Modi to not antagonise Nepal, or do anything to “subvert” the electoral outcome.

“The important political developments in Nepal should lead to a re-thinking and change in India’s attitude towards its neighbour. The Modi government should strive to establish close relations of cooperation based on equality and non-interference in the internal affairs of Nepal,” Prakash Karat, former general secretary of the CPM, wrote in Peoples Democracy justifying Nepal’s right to maintain cordial relations with both India and China. India’s main opposition party, the Congress, had openly sympathised with Nepal during the blockade, with some members of the party accusing the Indian government of forcing Nepal into China’s lap.

No doubt Oli has to strike a fine balance between China and India on the one hand, and between India’s government and the anti-Modi forces — with whom his Left alliance maintains clear proximity — on the other. But he also faces a much bigger challenge at home.

The pre-poll exercise that led to the formation of the Left Alliance had promised that the UML and the Maoists will together form the government and the two parties will ultimately unite. The Maoists, the junior partner in the coalition, however, want the merger to take place first so that Dahal is made the chairman of the united party before Oli takes over as prime minister. Moreover, the two leaders had agreed to rotational leadership of the government with Oli taking first charge.

Nepal’s hurriedly drafted constitution that was dictated more by the “consensus” among top leaders of major parties cutting across party lines, largely ignoring due process and practicality, is quite vague on formation of the new parliament and the government at the centre and in the seven provinces. The clash between President Bidhya Devi Bhandari, who has a UML background, and the caretaker prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, who is also the chairman of the Nepali Congress, on the issue of formation of the upper house of parliament is inching towards a showdown.

However, the direction that politics takes and the speed with which the two parties clear the ambiguities in the Constitution will give a sense of how long Oli will have to wait before taking over as PM. All parties need to come together to constitute the bicameral parliament and ensure one-third representation of women, none of which is possible without the upper house being formed. Moreover, the fight between alliance partners as well as the opposition parties over fixing the capitals of the provinces might even trigger a law and order problem.

The major parties have not even tried to build a common position on these issues. While Oli’s trip to Rasuagarhi might send a message to India or China, the Nepalese are yet to be convinced that the recently concluded elections have ended the country’s transition period and guaranteed political stability and constitutional order.

[email protected]. This article first appeared in The Indian Express.

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