There has been a lot of speculative analysis this week about the winners and losers in Nepal’s latest political upheaval, after the decision on 7 March by the Supreme Court that annulled the unification of the incumbent Nepal Communist Party (NCP).
Ruling on a petition that the party name was already registered, the Bench went beyond what was demanded to reinstate the NCP’s two constituent parties: the UML led by K P Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s Maoist Centre.
Ever since 2018, the country has been forced to pay the price for the inability of these two leaders to overcome their oversized egos. Nepal’s policy-making and development ground to a halt as the party and government got mired in intrigue and back-stabbing between the triumvirate of Oli, Dahal and Madhav Kumar Nepal.
Then, the Covid-19 crisis struck and Singha Darbar was too distracted to launch an effective response in time. The leaders were busy at their residences in Baluwatar, Khumaltar and Balkot in back-room wheeling and dealing.
Increasingly isolated, and fighting a rear-guard action, Prime Minister Oli dissolved the Lower House on 20 December just before the Dahal faction could register a no-confidence vote. When the Supreme Court restored the House on 23 February, there was great jubilation, with Dahal and Nepal feeding each other ladoo in front of cheering cadre.
That celebration turned out to be premature because it looks like Oli had another trick up his sleeves. Sunday’s decision effectively dismantled the NCP and bifurcated it once more between the UML and the Maoists.
If it is indeed true that Oli had masterminded this all along, then he is even more of a schemer than we had given him credit for. That is not necessarily good for the rule of law since it means unacceptable executive interference in the judiciary.
The general conclusion is that Oli had nothing left to lose, and was willing to dissolve Parliament and split the party to prevent his two nemeses from gaining control of the NCP chair and prime ministership — even if it meant sacrificing his leadership of government.
As someone said this week, Oli is playing chess and Dahal is playing checkers. The coming weeks will show how the party numbers in Parliament will play out in the formation of the next government. Both the UML and the Maoists are now courting the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP) to obtain the total 135 in the current 270-member Lower House.
The UML with 121 MPs will just need the NC’s 63 seats to cobble together a coalition, whereas the Maoists with 53 members will require both the NC and the JSP’s 34 to do so. All week, the two parties have been wooing the NC’s Sher Bahadur Deuba and JSP leaders, with Dahal more interested for now in unseating Oli in a no-confidence vote than in forming a government.
All this takes us back to the bad old days of cyclical coalitions of the late 1990s and the early 2010s when the functions of government were paralysed by short-term politicking — exactly the kind of instability the 2015 Constitution was supposed to put a stop to.
Hopes that the unification of the NCP in 2018 would bring stability and put Nepal on the track to growth have also been dashed. The country has now gone back three years. To be sure, the UML and the Maoists had never really united and it remained ideologically polarised between जबज and जन युद्द (People’s Multiparty Democracy vs People’s War).
True to the dictum that a Communist party regards the faction immediately to the right of it as a greater enemy than an extreme rightwing party, both factions distrusted each other more than the NC. As he got more cornered, Oli was openly flirting with the Hindu right.
The question now is which serial prime minister will be the new prime minister. Not that it matters much, these are all tried, tested and failed leaders who have had multiple chances in the past decades to prove their statesmanship.
The best-case scenario would be if the current political crisis could be turned into an opportunity by the four main parties to skip a generation and elevate a new crop of untainted younger leaders with fresh blood and energy.
But that may be wishful thinking. We are once more seriously underestimating the egos and ambition of these superannuated septuagenarians.