Reverberations of 2019 are going to have far-reaching impact on Nepali politics in the coming year as a tug-o-war, broadly between ex-UML and ex-Maoist politicians within the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), intensifies.
A helicopter crash during a blizzard on 27 February in eastern Nepal killed Tourism Minister Rabindra Adhikari, entrepreneur Ang Tshering Sherpa and four others. Sherpa’s friendship with Prime Minister Oli, and alleged irregularities in his dealings with the former royal property in Gokarna and Durbar Marg, which are administered by the Nepal Trust, and Kongde Resort — which lies inside Sagarmatha National Park — have now come under intense scrutiny.
The prime minister’s detractors within the NCP are using the agreements between Nepal Trust and Yeti Holdings to corner Oli through a relentless and high-profile media campaign. Some of the leaks in the media about the contracts and minutes of cabinet meetings could only have come from the highest sources.
The prime minister himself is in poor health, needs weekly dialysis and has decided to carry out his impending kidney transplant in Nepal itself. But he has stubbornly refused to hand over the reins of government to his party co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal.
Polarisation has paralysed party decision-making, as last week’s stormy central committee meeting showed. Oli loyalists Defence Minister Ishwar Pokhrel, Information Minister Gokul Banskota, ex-Speaker Subhas Nembang and others were pitted against ex-UML dissidents like Madhav Kumar Nepal, Jhalnath Khanal, Bamdev Gautam and Bhim Rawal, who are now with Dahal.
These were the gentlemen most vociferous in pushing for Dahal’s choice of Agni Sapkota as the new speaker of Parliament to replace Krishna Bahadur Mahara, who is in jail on charges of attempted rape of a colleague. Oli’s man for the post is Nembang.
That battle in the committee also spilled over into verbal combat over the $500 million, US-funded Millennium Challenge Corporation project to upgrade Nepal’s highways and transmission lines. The disagreement between the Dahal vs Oli camps became so acrimonious that the matter was sent to the party secretariat. It is expected to be passed by the winter session of Parliament — that is if there is agreement on the post of speaker first.
The two power centres in Nepal today are therefore not the opposition Nepali Congress and the ruling NCP, but two Communist alpha males locked in a power struggle. This will continue to impact directly on policy decisions, appointments and ultimately even the country’s leadership in 2020. In the past two years Oli has centralised all day-to-day decision-making in the PMO, micromanaging appointments, policy and implementation.
The prognosis for 2020 is that Dahal may decide that it is not worth the risk to try to replace Oli, and content himself with being a powerful party supremo and behind-the-scenes kingmaker. And as Oli gets physically, politically and morally weak, Dahal’s power is only set to grow, making his supporters stronger.
Political commentator Shyam Shrestha draws parallels between today and the rivalry between King Mahendra and Prime Minister BP Koirala before the 1960 coup. Mahendra is supposed to have famously told BP: “Nepal is not big enough for the two of us.”
Shrestha adds: “Oli and Dahal have a similar love-hate relationship. But there can be only one winner in this race.”