Nepal seems to be heading straight into an extended period of instability, with the latest jolt in the form of Sunday’s expulsion of Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli from the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP).
The tiny nation is in an unenviable situation. Sandwiched in the high-stakes power game between ‘big brothers’ India and China on either side, Kathmandu is being buffeted by headwinds that are proving to be rough for the hapless Nepalese.
As if the India-China proxy battle was not enough, the incessant internal power struggle within the NCP between Oli and the party chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, or ‘Prachanda’, is neutralising any possibility of a stable dispensation and protect the hard-fought gains of the democratic struggle that overthrew the monarchy over a decade ago.
The ruling Communists are now headed for a split. What is of interest is how exactly the breakup is going to happen — whether Oli will walk away with his original party, the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) or if a new splintering will occur.
The other faction within the ruling NCP — the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), led by Prachanda and co-chairman Madhav Kumar Nepal — expelled Oli on Sunday. After a lengthy bout of rivalry within the NCP, Oli dissolved the lower house of Parliament (the Pratinidhi Sabha) on December 20 and asked President Bidhiya Devi Bhandari to call for elections in April-May. Bhandari duly obliged, causing outrage within the NCP.
Interestingly, according to the 2015 Constitution, the prime minister cannot recommend dissolution of Parliament without first exploring alternative arrangements. At least 12 petitions have been filed before the nation’s supreme court challenging the constitutionality of the dissolution.
The uncharted path the nation has headed into appears to have triggered fears over the future of Nepal’s federal republic setup with reports quoting constitutional experts favouring a reinstatement of Parliament.
Oli himself is in a piquant situation as technically he is not heading any party in Parliament. This is because the Election Commission has not yet recognised the two factions as independent political parties.
The split in the NCP is a setback to China, which for weeks had attempted to reconcile the Oli and the Prachanda factions. The country’s ambassador to Nepal, Hou Yanqi, attempted to initially bring about peace. When that did not work, the Chinese government sent a top Communist party official Guo Yezhou to persuade the two rivals to make up. He, too, appears to have failed.
Incidentally, it was China that had stitched together the NCP in 2018 and had since then maintained close contact, mentoring the ruling party with a view to expanding its influence in the country.
On the other hand, India, with easier geographical access to Nepal and entrenched within the country for several decades, has been a long time political influencer in that nation. The NCP in Kathmandu was viewed negatively by New Delhi, and since the new Constitution in 2015, had seen its power over the neighbouring nation wane.
To make matters more challenging for New Delhi, when the NCP formed government in 2018, the Chinese immediately got a bigger say in Kathmandu.
In a strategic error, India had three years earlier, in 2015, enforced a stringent economic blockade in support of the Madhesis (plains people of Indian origin) over an internal spat regarding the delimitation of districts in the newly-hammered out Constitution. The blockade angered the Nepalese and alienated New Delhi in Kathmandu’s corridors of power.
China came to the succour of Nepal, which suffered serious shortages of essential commodities, including petrol, as a result of the blockade. Along with expansive aid, Beijing was able to gobble up traditional areas of influence that India had willy-nilly conceded by enforcing the highly-unpopular blockade.
For India, the loss of influence was real. Oli, as the prime minister in June 2020, raked up a new border dispute with India in the sensitive Lipulekh-Kalapani-Limiyadhura triangle claiming that it belonged to Nepal. Ignoring India’s protestations, Oli went ahead and altered the country’s map (using a parliamentary vote) to incorporate the triangular area. Oli also alleged a plot by India to oust him from power.
The split within the ruling party, followed by Oli’s expulsion, means New Delhi is back again with a chance to assert its long-standing hold over Kathmandu. It is too early to say how a shift will play out as the constitutional process involving elections and the status of Parliament is up in the air. But New Delhi appears to have used its long-standing clout in Kathmandu to retrieve some of its hold over that nation.
It may not be entirely a coincidence that in the last few weeks, Oli has appeared friendlier to India. His government, pointedly, preferred New Delhi’s COVID vaccine to the one made in China.
Oli’s turnaround has been preceded by a series of visits by top Indian officials to Nepal in recent months. Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla met Oli in November. Earlier, the Indian Army Chief, Gen M M Naravane, was in Nepal; Research and Analysis Wing chief Samant Kumar Goel also did a tour, followed by a trip by BJP’s Vijay Chauthaiwale who heads the party’s foreign policy think tank.
The latest was a visit to India by Nepal’s Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali last week for the sixth meeting of the Nepal-India Joint Commission.
Meanwhile, caught in the power play between India and China, the real loser will be the general Nepali population. Already, like the rest of the world, Nepal, too, has suffered immensely from the COVID-19 pandemic. Thousands have suffered loss of employment and the economy is in crisis.
The Nepali economy depends on remittances from the earnings of its workers abroad. According to reports quoting the Institute for Integrated Development Studies (IIDS), nearly 30 per cent of the GDP comes from these remittances. In 2018, the country earned over $8 billion in this manner.
Following the COVID pandemic, thousands of Nepalese employed abroad have returned home following job losses. In addition, tourism, which is a huge money spinner, saw a near-total collapse due to the pandemic, while small and medium enterprises, too, are in deep trouble. The otherwise booming aviation industry is on the verge of collapse, say reports.
It is at this juncture that infighting has erupted within the ruling dispensation in Kathmandu, leaving the nation all but rudderless, and clueless.