You have to give it to K P Oli, he seems to have wriggled out of the biggest crisis in his current tenure as prime minister. No, not the pandemic, but a near mutiny in his party.
Just as rivals within his Nepal Communist Party (NCP) were set to mount yet another offensive to oust him from office, he has defused the threat for now by agreeing to form a peacekeeping 6-member task force.
Halfway through his tenure, however, Oli and his party are not out of the woods yet. On Wednesday, for example, the Election Commission gave the re-registered UML its own election symbol. This was Oli’s gambit to threaten to split the party if his rivals continue to challenge him – and it looks like he wants to keep that option open in case they backtrack.
After marathon meetings last week, Oli and party co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal reiterated their commitment to let a special party convention decide on the NCP leadership, and set up the taskforce to mediate till then. Since then, members of the anti-Oli faction including Madhav Nepal have been ominously quiet.
It took Prime Minister Oli more than two-months to neutralise his rivals, but he is now confronted with the Covid-19 health and economic emergency. Cases are surging and large parts of the country have gone back into lockdown.
Oli has been so engrossed in trying to save himself that he has not had time to save the country. There is widespread public outrage that his government mis-handled the coronavirus crisis and profited from the procurement process.
What a fall from grace it has been for a party that swept the 2017 elections on the promise of ‘stability and prosperity’. Nepalis have seen neither in the past two-and-half years. Far from making the country stable, Oli is himself on shaky ground.
With another two-and-half years to go for elections, NCP leaders seems to have decided that they have to improve performance. Even party insiders admit that if elections were held today, the NCP would not get a majority.
Even before the Covid-19 crisis, public disillusionment with his government had been mounting. Oli first tried to silence critics with restrictions on the media. When that did not work, he reverted to ultra-nationalism to distract attention from his failures, and to defuse the threat from within his party.
Even though the Covid-19 pandemic is a crisis, it gave the government a chance to finally prove itself. It did show some decisiveness in March with the lockdown, but failed to follow up by managing test kits, equipment, setting up adequate health facilities, and assisting those most affected by the lockdown. Worse, ministers were hand-in-glove with cronies and middlemen to siphon off the budget.
As the pandemic spread like wildfire across India, the government made another blunder last month by announcing that the lockdown had been lifted – knowingly fully well that there would be unregulated movement across the open border. It should have lifted restrictions in phases, but the deed was done. The current spike in cases, and the need for another lockdown is a result of that oversight.
Now that the prime minister has agreed on a kind of ceasefire with his party rivals, his government has another opportunity to turn its full attention and show that it has the capacity to deal with the socio-economic fallout of the pandemic.
To present a cleaner can-do face to the public, Oli is said to be working on a reshuffle. This is his last chance to nominate ministers based on integrity and capability rather than balancing internal party arithmetics.
The fate of the party in the 2022 election depends on it.