Push and pull of Nepali politics
After weeks of bitter infighting within the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP), the three feuding factions have now agreed on a ceasefire and there is an uneasy calm in Kathmandu.
The political counter-coup by Prime Minister K P Oli last week allowed him to keep his job for now, but in the process he had to make some compromises. The upshot is that the concentration of power in the prime minister’s office that had characterised Nepal’s politics for the past two-and-half years has now been replaced with a tense triangular standoff.
Although Oli managed to forestall attempts to oust him, he is not as strong as before and has been forced to yield to party co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal and the faction led by former prime minister Madhav Kumar Nepal.
It is difficult to say what tricks Oli had in the bag to defuse the threat from Dahal, but political analysts agree that one major factor was the strong message from Beijing delivered by the Chinese Ambassador not to split the NCP. The party rank-and-file got the message and lobbied intensely with Dahal and Oli to sort out their ego-clash and not hold the party and nation hostage.
The deal hammered out allows Oli to complete his term and effectively serve as incumbent during the 2022 election. In return the prime minister has agreed to back Dahal as the sole executive head of the NCP during its forthcoming Special Convention in November. Oli even convinced Dahal that Maoism as an ideology was obsolete, and he should espouse the ‘people’s democracy’ of the late UML leader Madan Bhandari. But Dahal may have also realised that his next rival in the party is Nepal and not Oli, and decided to jump ship.
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Oli has also reportedly agreed to reshuffle the Cabinet by inducting more Dahal loyalists. There may have to be additional portfolios for supporters of Madhav Nepal, who already has two loyalists in the Cabinet: Agriculture Minister Ghanashyam Bhusal and Tourism Minister Yogesh Bhattarai.
Critical in the political arithmetic that allowed Oli to survive the latest threat was the defection of Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa and UML leader Bam Dev Gautam. We can only speculate what those two got in return. But it looks like that the prominent third-tier leaders deeply involved in mediation, including former Maoist guerrilla commander Janardan Sharma, Devendra Poudel and Haribol Gajurel, would probably also stand to be rewarded with posts in the next government.
Finance Minister Yubaraj Khatiwada has made no secret of his desire to be the next ambassador to the US, and he may be replaced in the reshuffle by either Surendra Pandey or Bishnu Poudel. There may also be a rearrangement of Chief Ministers, and Oli may have to let go of some his people including Prithvi Subba Gurung of Gandaki Province and Shankar Pokhrel of Province 5.
After all that hectic horse-trading, all is quiet in Khumaltar, Balwatar and Koteswor this week – the three residences of Dahal, Oli and Nepal respectively. Dahal is said to be spending time with his family, and feeding pigeons. Nepal is sulking. And Oli, being Oli, must be plotting his next move.
Now that there is no imminent threat of government collapse, it would be a good time for Prime Minister Oli to focus all his attention on the monsoon disaster relief and the COVID-19 crisis. But he will probably busy doling out portfolios so as to appease the factions.
There is so much bad blood between the three NCP factions that even when the reshuffle happens, the Cabinet will probably function like a coalition government.