By Shambhu Ram Simkhada (KATHMANDU, October 16) – On 11 October, 2015 K P Sharma Oli, leader of the Communist Party of Nepal United Marxists Leninists was sworn-in as the 38th Prime Minister of Nepal. Ordinarily, his rise to power would be seen normal, through a vote in Parliament. But the timing and circumstances in which he takes over as the Chief pilot of the Nepali statecraft, passing through unusually stormy weather, raises the stakes. As the man at the helm, can Oli demonstrate wisdom and ability to implement the recently promulgated Constitution, relieve the pain of the Nepalese by resolving the problem in the Tarai-Madhesh and restore excellent relations with India?
- Domestic politics: After Seven years and two elections, the Constituent Assembly promulgated the new Constitution on 20 September. Under its provision, the Parliament elected Oli as PM. Actually, the Communist Party of Nepal Maoists placed the CA in Nepal’s contemporary political agenda as one of its key demands during the decade long violent conflict and the subsequent peace process. Maoist leaders Puspa Kamala Dahal and Babu Ram Bhattarai both became Prime Ministers but could not complete the constitution making process while they were in power and dominant players of Nepali politics. Circumstances forced one out of his old party to start a new one. The other feels compelled to join the Oli cabinet alongside Kamal Thapa, President of the National Democratic party-Nepal, the most astute and ardent defender of the Panchayat system, against which Puspa Kamal Dahal and Babu Ram Bhattarai started their “war” and Sushil Koirala, the outgoing PM under whose leadership the Constitution was promulgated and KP Oli joined. Highlighting the new stage of Nepal’s politics, Keshar Bista, Thapa’s long time colleague in the past and pillar of his party now said in conversation after Oli’s (and Thapa’s) oath taking “the playground of Nepali politics is all open again. No one is untouchable now”. Nepal’s politics has indeed completed a full circle.
- The new Constitution fulfills the long wish of the people to be governed democratically under a constitution written by their representatives. So most Nepalese celebrated its promulgation. But a significant section is also opposing it. Their apparent concern is provincial border delineation in federalizing the Nepali state. But more complex issues are creating problems in Nepal’s southern plains. Many people have died and large areas are under lockout since long. Nepalese there are in pain but the suffering is nationwide.
- Most Nepalese wanted the CA to complete the Constitution and leaders demonstrated laudable unity to do so. This was one of the few occasions Nepal’s national political priority, set by the political elite in Kathmandu connected well with local reality, real need and demand of the people. Except, there was a caveat. Few CA members registered opposition to the draft constitution. Based on overwhelming majority in the CA, everyone thought issues raised by the Tarai-Madhesh political elite could be handled. But, the mainstream parties claiming over 90 percent of the seats from there in the CA election have been unable either to convince the agitating Tarai-Madhesh political elite or explain the positive features of the new Constitution to the people there. In the political mess created by both leaders agitating there and ruling from Kathmandu, risks of the rise of more radicalized groups leading the alienated masses could further complicate the already chaotic situation. Oli must move quickly to address the problem in the Tarai Madhesh with serious national implications. To do so, he must first understand what he and his main partners overlooked while rushing the Constitution through the CA.
- Nepal’s geo-political reality demands that for successful piloting of the Nepali statecraft, local reality and national political priority is also synchronized with geo-political complexity. This diplomatic failure is yet again overshadowing the otherwise successful exercise in domestic politics. As if responding to my article “Nepal’s yet another Tryst with Destiny”, which I wrote after the promulgation of the Constitution, an old friend and senior Indian diplomat, now heading a well known security think tank in Delhi, sent me his article “Nepal’s yet another unmet (emphasis added) Tryst with Destiny” in which he quotes my name and view. And sadly, he might be right, although I hope and pray not.
- High Caliber Diplomacy: Concerned that the Tarai Madhesh unrest will affect its side of the open Indo-Nepal border, Nepal’s influential southern neighbor has reservation saying “even if the whole world welcomes it, what will be the value of this Constitution if India does not?” Landlocked Nepal which relies on India for almost all of its essential supplies, food, industrial raw material, vital oil and gas, feels strangulated. The Nepali side calls it a blockade. The Indians retort “the disruption in supplies is due to problems on the Nepali side”. Confounding the problem, even senior Nepali politicians and diplomats who should be active to resolve the issues, are asking, what does India want?, indicating a serious communication gap? Exchanges through the media “address problems of your own people rather than blaming us” from one side, notice of internationalizing the blockade, cancelling old contracts, seeking supplies from elsewhere from the other risks spiraling Nepal-India relations deeper in distrust. Disruption of essential supplies only create problems for the friendly people. Dangling unviable “cards” without homework only infuriate powerful partners and prolong their suffering. Serious and sincere dialogue must start immediately to resolve the problems in Tarai Madhesh, remove any misunderstandings with India and restore flow of essential supplies to relieve the pains of the people as the festive season is fast approaching.
- Prompt congratulatory telephone call by Indian PM Narendra Modi inviting Oli to visit India and saying “we value ties with Nepal and want to strengthen them even further” is good sign of reaching out. Modi did so to outgoing PM Sushil Koirala during his first visit to Nepal. His response after the devastating earthquake was admirable. Why then did he reportedly refuse to take Koirala’s calls recently? One possible explanation is disappointment with Koirala’s diplomatic lethargy. Can Oli do better?
- Fiery rhetoric can get politicians elected but will not lead to successful diplomacy. A senior Indian diplomat wrote long ago, India-Nepal relations suffer due to “myopic misjudgments on both sides”. Best of relations with India is in Nepal’s own national interest. Sooner the Nepalese accept this and Indians, rather than taking sides, decide to work with whoever is elected, the better. Creative thinking and high caliber diplomacy are needed to take Nepal-India relations, marked by vitality of proximity but also complexity and sensitivity, to new heights with mega models of mutual cooperation and benefit.
- How he maneuvers around these two stormy spots, the Tarai Madhesh problem and relations with India, will test Oli’s skill in piloting the Nepali statecraft through the cloudy route it has been taking for some time now.
- Better Governance: Even if he succeeds in getting the Constitution accepted by all, a new Constitution will not bring immediate and automatic social and economic dividend. It will only create an environment for change. But do people in power want to change? Will they adopt a new culture of rewarding honesty and good work, punishment for bad? Will leaders pay attention to the needs of the people for better living, more employment generating projects etc rather than the usual obsession with power? Bargaining for high political posts may be unavoidable. But appointments to professional positions like Ambassadors or administrators will soon give signals if the Oli administration is any different.
- Election of local bodies as soon as possible, blue-print for socio-economic transformation, rapid post-earthquake reconstruction and rehabilitation and post-protest economic recovery packages are other important national agendas. The government should also start thinking about a dignified exit to the jumbo Parliament with early general election.
- Unity and sense of Purpose: Moving on all these fronts will require national unity and sense of purpose among the main political actors. With the last election people entrusted the responsibility of moving the country forward to the main political parties. The Constitution became possible when they decided to unite and act. But some of the current problems are also the result of their inability to move promptly and decisively.
- In this context, how will Oli deal with the last minute maneuver of the NC and the challenge by Sushil Koirala, against the gentleman’s agreement reached earlier, reportedly under Indian pressure? Can both sides now come up with creative thinking for unity of purpose on the main national agendas despite being competitors for power? How does he create a balance among the competing demands of the fiery UML President, wise and courageous Prime Minister of the whole of Nepal and a statesman for all Nepalese? Well known for his unique brand of politics yesterday and triumphant today, how will PM Oli be remembered tomorrow?
Answer to these serious questions will largely depend on how he deals with the problems in the Tarai-Madhesh, relieves the current agony of the people, manages his diverse coalition cabinet, deals with the potent opposition and his own party, provides a clear roadmap for the future transformation of Nepal and handles Nepalese diplomacy. The challenges and opportunities of being remembered as the successful first Executive Head of Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal are enormous. To really end the political transition and start the journey towards a democratic, peaceful and prosperous Nepal for all Nepalese Oli also needs a team of committed and competent professionals to assist. Ultimately, much will depend on his personal health and political will power to exercise state power, which he has acquired skillfully and decisively, for the well being of the people. [email protected]