Regional antennae are up even if the court mandated political shake-up in Nepal may yield only more instability
Old timers, particularly those who since the 1960s and 70s had made Nepal an annual travel destination, would recall with great fondness how the majestic and picturesque kingdom was a warm, welcoming place. The orderliness and tidiness that greeted them in this tiny, poor nation, nestled in the snow capped Himalayas, contrasted sharply with the chaotic buzz that characterized large parts of other South Asian countries. Even more importantly, the relative absence of bureaucratic bottlenecks and red tape made their entry and stay in the country smooth and pleasant, free of jarring unpredictability and hassles. These repeat visitors would have noted the comparative disorderliness that democracy characteristically ushered in when it burst onto the Nepalese political space in the 1990s. Over the last 30 years the situation has only gotten worse, and Nepal has become more and more like the rest of South Asia as it has gradually abandoned the traits and outlooks that set it apart. The blame for this falls not on the people of Nepal, but rather on its political leadership, which has led and encouraged the rot. By and large lacking in vision and the ingredients of statesmanship, the title of an earlier EFSAS Commentary – Nepal’s self-centered political leadership has repeatedly failed its people – had summed up the unhealthy attitude of Nepal’s political leaders appropriately. Their blatant and large-scale politicization of the country’s entire administrative structure has been a bane, and has adversely impacted all aspects of Nepali society.
It would be improper to say that democracy only brought in a lesser standard of order. It has actually benefitted the people of Nepal in myriad ways. It is equally true, however, that the huge potential for empowerment and growth that a switch from a monarchic to a democratic system ought to have harnessed has been nipped considerably by the extremely narrow and highly selfish personal interests and ambitions of a succession, indeed a procession, of Nepali political leaders. This has yet again been brought to the fore this past week, when Nepal’s Supreme Court booted out the crafty and scheming K.P. Sharma Oli from his precarious and suspiciously untenable perch on the Prime Minister’s seat. Not just this, the court also named Oli’s successor, the four-time former Premier Sher Bahadur Deuba, without leaving the matter to the Parliament’s best judgment as is usually done. The court has had to intervene because even in the middle of a ravaging COVID-19 outbreak the country’s political leadership, with leaders of almost all political parties and factions being involved, were encouraging political instability and discord, each in pursuit of his or her own individual self-seeking interest.
After his first unsuccessful attempt to dissolve the country’s Parliament in December 2020 following a split in his political party, the Nepal Communist Party – Unified Marxist Leninist (NCP-UML), as the decision was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, K.P. Sharma Oli lost a vote of confidence in Parliament on 10 May and was removed from his position as Prime Minister. His opponents led by Deuba and including Oli’s former ally Prachanda of the Nepal Communist Party – Maoist (NCP-Maoist) and Madhav Kumar Nepal of NCP-UML, who had over time become staunchly opposed to Oli, staked a claim to form the government while asserting that they had the required number of Members of Parliament (MPs) on their side. Before they could get an opportunity to prove their numbers on the floor of the house, Oli made a counter claim of having the majority and convinced President Bidya Devi Bhandari, a known close associate of his, to yet again dissolve Parliament. She willingly obliged, even though she was constitutionally required to test the majority on the floor of the house. The President’s conduct in this instance, as in several others during Oli’s tenure in which she was seen to be heedlessly promoting Oli’s cause rather than being neutral as her Constitutional role mandated, has come in for strong criticism from politicians and constitutional experts alike.
The peeved opposition, weary of being repeatedly outfoxed by Oli’s trickery, again took the matter to the Supreme Court, where a five member Constitutional Bench headed by Chief Justice Cholendra J.B. Rana ruled on 12 July that as per Art 76 (5) of the Constitution Oli’s claim to the post of Prime Minister was untenable. The court asserted that Article 76 (5) did not give the President any discretionary power to appoint anybody as Prime Minister, and that Bhandari ought to have have left it to Parliament to decide on who had the majority required to stake a claim to form the government after Oli had failed to prove majority support. The court directed that the dissolved Parliament be reinstated and Deuba be installed as Prime Minister by the evening of the following day. Asking that the house be convened within a week, the court stipulated that in accordance with the country’s Constitution, Deuba would have to prove his majority in the house within a month. It also clarified that under Article 76 (5), the NCP-UML faction voting for Deuba would not qualify for punitive action for defying a party whip. This removed a major hurdle from the opposition grouping’s path.
As Deuba took oath as Prime Minister on 13 July, a sizeable section of Nepal’s population would have breathed a sigh of relief at Oli’s riddance. Significant damage to democracy and institutions of the State, however, had already been done during Oli’s three-and-a-half year tenure. As the Kathmandu Post daily summed up in an editorial on 13 July, “The role played by President Bidya Devi Bhandari in authenticating Prime Minister Oli’s undemocratic activities cannot be forgotten. For each of Oli’s misadventures, there was President Bhandari acting as a rubber stamp rather than as a check-and-balance institution. President Bhandari’s term will be remembered as a textbook case of how a constitutional head can turn against the constitution. Together, the Oli-Bhandari duo used every trick in the book to push the country into one crisis after another even as they pursued a politics of vengeance. But the game Oli and Bhandari played is nothing new in Nepali politics. What is to be remembered is that the individuals into whose hands the mantle of democracy has been transferred are the ones who have a history of derailing the democratic process in their own right”.
Political analyst Lok Raj Baral believes that the Supreme Court had stopped Oli from “doing as he pleases”, but “Political stability ahead depends on an alliance among sharply divided political parties and their factions”. Deuba’s installation is hardly any guarantee that a period of political stability lies ahead for Nepal. Deuba’s own political history would caution against any such notion. He first became Prime Minister in the 1990s during King Birendra’s reign as constitutional monarch and has held the exalted position on three other subsequent occasions, but none of his tenures has lasted more than a year-and-a-half. If history is not on Deuba’s side, nor is the way that the numbers are presently stacked up. The fickleness and opportunism of those from the NCP-UML that had pledged support to him just recently is also leading to doubts and misgivings. Even if Deuba and his party, the Nepali Congress (NC), which has only 61 seats in the 275-member House of Representatives, somehow scrapes through the confidence vote with the backing of those parties that have assured him support, fresh elections will in any case have to be conducted within 18 months when the term of the present house ends. If Deuba loses the floor test, as may well happen if the talk of rapprochement between the two bickering factions of the NCP-UML is anything more than political speculation or rumor, then elections will be held in November this year. This is the election that Oli has indicated he is now targeting to make a roaring comeback.
The messy and loud splashing of the bickering and worked-up Nepali politicians and the far reaching implications of the Supreme Court decision, quite naturally, have generated considerable interest in larger regional powers such as India. It has conversely worried others, mainly China, which had invested deeply in the Oli-led communist bloc.
India, which has historically had close ties with the Nepali Congress and a healthy working relationship with Deuba during his earlier terms as Premier, congratulated him upon his assumption of office. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh was the first foreign leader to call Deuba and wish him. India’s Ambassador to Nepal, Vinay Mohan Kwatra, tweeted after visiting Deuba on 14 July, “Honoured to call on @DeubaSherbdr; extended congratulations and best wishes on becoming PM of Nepal. Looking forward to working with his team to deepen the multifaceted India-Nepal partnership and people-to-people ties for common progress and prosperity”. Nepal's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a tweet that Deuba had thanked the Indian envoy and had “recalled the age-old friendly relations between the two countries”.
From India’s perspective, the bilateral relationship, which is accorded considerable importance in New Delhi, had stagnated and withered through much of Oli’s tenure as he kept raising one inconsequential anti-India pinprick after another as a tactic to boost his nationalist credentials. When he sought to change tack towards the fag end of his tenure, it was because he felt that he could benefit from Indian help in overcoming the political pressure that had been brought to bear upon him by Deuba and his allies. India saw through this, and was hardly likely to forget or condone the red carpet that Oli was constantly laying out for China in Nepal. As Al Jazeera noted in a 13 July report, “Deuba is likely to bring Nepal back closer to India after Oli favoured ties with its other giant neighbour, China”. India would expect to find it easier to deal with Deuba than it did with the erratic Oli, but it would at the same time be weary of how the political discourse may play out in the coming weeks. It may, therefore, opt for the moment to restrict itself to a more pronounced humanitarian tilt and help Nepal deal with fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic consequences thereof.
Over the years, China has invested greatly in the communist parties of Nepal and it had extended all-out support to Oli throughout his tenure. It benefitted commensurately in Nepal during Oli’s term, and it was therefore not surprising that China made an all-out effort to ensure that Oli remained in the saddle. It went to the extent of sending a high-powered delegation headed by senior office bearers of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) to bring the two squabbling factions of the NCP-UML together. That it did not succeed would have come as a blow to China not just because it consequently lost a strong supporter in Oli at the helm, but also because it was forced to confront the shallow limits of the power that it thought it enjoyed among the communist parties. As Ranjit Rae, former Indian envoy to Kathmandu, told The Print, “The Chinese have burnt their fingers somewhat since the merger of the communist parties has unraveled. While they have stated that they will engage with all parties, their long term strategy to consolidate the communist force will remain”. Meanwhile, the firm footholds that China has carved out for itself in these past few years in Nepal will mean that it will most likely view the current developments as an aberration that will soon pass. Bereft of the context of strong people-to-people ties and without ethnic or social similarity with the people of Nepal, China’s objectives in the Himalayas will remain mainly strategic, mercenary and extractive.
As these political and strategic games play out on their soil, it could well be that the time has come for the people of Nepal to demand more from their wayward and irresponsible political leaders and to finally put to bed the notion that the political immaturity on display in Kathmandu is merely a reflection of the country’s transition to democracy, which remains work in progress.