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The long shadow of political turmoil in Nepal

Politics in Nepal entered another phase of uncertain ty last week. The country’s President, Bidya Devi Bhandari, dissolved the House of Representatives (lower house) late night on briday at the suggestion of Prime Minister KP Sharma (Picture), in a partisan move that disregard ed the Constitution. Fresh elections were announced for bet TA ween November 12 and 18 Announcing elections was just to sig ensure that Mr. Oli continues in of KE fice and controlling the state machinery, even as Nepal battles a second and deadlier COVID:19 wave .

Oli’s opportunistic politics

Mr. Oli came to power after the 2017 elections, the first undertaken in the federal republic of Nepal. established under the 2015 Constitution. He led his party, the CPN(UML), to an impressive rally of 121 seats and together with the Maoist Centre’s 53 sears, enjoyed a near absolute majority in the 275- strong House. In May 2018, the two allies merged to cement their alliance and created the Nepal Communist Party (NCP).

Relations with India saw positive movement. New Delhi was willing to overcome its reservations about Mr: Oll’s anti-Indian nationalist tirades Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Nepal in al di May 2018, shortly after Mr. Oli’s visit.

However, Mr. Oli’s autocratic tendencies soon began to surface The power sharing arrangement worked out with former Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ started fraying. The original idea that both would take turns at being Prime Minister and run

the NCP as co-chairs became irk come for Mr Oli While he weaned away the Maoist cabinet members. senior disgruntled UML leaders led by former Prime Ministers, Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhala Nath Khianal. gravitated towards Prachanda. Differences emerged in the open and a growing demand surfaced for honoring the one person one post policy. Prachan da was willing to let Mr Oli continue the full term as Prime Minis ter, provided he gave up his role as w chuir of the party. Mr. Oh decided otherwise

Mr. Oli needed a distraction and by end 2019. found one in the Kalapani boundary issue. India is. sued new maps following the division of the State of Jammu and Kashmir into Union Territories, Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. While 98% of the India-Nepal boundary was demarcated, two areas, Susta and Kalapani, had re mained pending. Though the new Indian map did not affect the India-Nepal boundary in any material way, it was an opportunity for Mr. Oli to don his nationalist mantle. He expanded the Kalapani area dispute from one covering approximately 60 square kilometers on Nepal’s northwest tip with Uttarakhand and China by raising the demand for restoring an additional 335 sq. km. The boundaries were fixed in 1816 by the British, and India Inhe. rited the areas over which the British had exercised territorial con: trol in 1947

Domestic politics takes over

Caught up in the first COVID-19 wave, India kept deferring bilateral talks. perhaps not realising the domestic political pressures on Me Oli in May 2020 when De fence Minister Rajnath Singh in- augurated the 75 km road through Kalapani that linked to the Kailash- Mansarovar pilgrimage route, Mr. Oli upped the ante by whipping up nationalist sentiment, getting a new map of Nepal endorsed by the House and adopting a constitutional amendment to sanctify Ne- pal’s new territory. While this did not alter the situation on the ground, it cramped the prospects of any dialogue with India. It was a short reprieve and Mr. Oli’s political troubles soon returned to haunt him President Bhandari has been Mr. Oli’s close comrade since she entered active politics after the un- timely demise of her husband Madan Bhandari, a charismatic UML leader, in a car accident in 1993, Me oli was her political mentor and hacked her elevation as Presi- dent. She reciprocated by ignoring constitutional propriety and approving dubious ordinances in- duding amending the Constitutional Council Act that enabled Mr. Oli to pack constitutional positions with his loyalists

Amid Nemours that Prachanda and Mr. Nepal were planning to move no-condense-motion against him after he had studiously ignored the meetings and decisions of party’s Secretariat and the Standing Committee. Mr. Oli got President Bhandari to approve dis- solution of the House on December 20, paving the way for elections in April-May. The President’s decision was uniformly criticized as unconstitutional as the NCP enjoyed a near absolute majority. India decided to steer clear of the mess, calling it an internal matter while the Chinese Ambas

sador continued to actively push for a rapprochement between the NCP factions. A five judge constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court unanimously called for a restoration of the House on February 23 strengthening the Prachanda Nepal faction but on March 7 delivered a bombshell by over turning the UML-Maoist merger of May 2018, against which an appeal had been pending for two years Mr. Oli took over the reins of the old CPN(UML), reviving prior structures but now excluding Mr. Nepal and his supporters. Some were served suspension notices. The Nepal faction was reduced to a minority under the law, a split in the party requires a 40% of both the parliamentary party and the central committee Prachanda, heading the Maoist Centre with 49 members since four had joined hands with Mr. Oli, needed new al- lies to wage his battles Though Mr. Oli had lost majority in the House as Maoist Centre was no longer supporting him, he challenged the Opposition to file a no-confidence-motion certain that the Maoists, Nepali Congress (NC) and the Janata SamajbadiPar ty (SP) would fail to reach an agreement on a new Prime Minis ter. He was proven right but over taken by hubris, he took another gamble. He called for a trust vote on May 10 that he lost as 28 UML dissident members were absent and half the JSP voted against him while the other half abstained

1 Presidential improprieties The Opposition again failed to pre sent an alternative. In a questionable decision, Mr. Oli was sworn in by President Bhandari on May 14 as Prime Minister under Article 76 (3) that permits the leader of the largest party to be sworn in and given 30 days to demonstrate major- ity. Within a week, Mr. Oli an nouned that he would not seek another vote of confidence. With out resigning, however, he advised

the President to explore other op- tionswithin a day, as rum ours gained ground that NC leader Sher Bahadur Deuba had managed to gather support from 149 members Including 19 Maoists, 25 UML dis sidents and 12 from the JSP Mr. Oli rushed to the President and save her a list of 153 supporters that in cluded all 121 UML and 32 SP members, including UML disoldents and SP members who voted against him on May 10. Without bothering to verify President Bhandari dissolved the House and announced fresh elections, justifying that the rival claims exceeded the strength of the House Since 2008 when a new constituent Assembly was elected to pre pare a constitution for a federal re- publie, Nepal has seen three NC Prime Ministers (G.P. Koirala, Sushil Koirala and Deuba), two Maoist Prime Ministers (Prachan da twice and Baburam Bhattarai), three UML Prime Ministers (Nepal, Khanal and Oli sworn in thrice) and a Chief Justice as caretaker Prime Minister in 2013. None has damaged the Constitution and the 5 political fabric of Nepal as much as Mr. Oli, together with an obliging n Ms. Bhandari. Opposition leaders have challenged the House dissolution in the Supreme Court but its outcome is uncertain. Meanwhile te a raging COVID-19 puts a question IL mark on the election. In case an nt election is held, Mr. Oli will camampai on a nationalist anti-Indian platform.

It is clear that political uncertainty will continue, India has traditionally supported constitution alism and multi-party democracy in Nepal. At this juncture, it needs to remain actively engaged with all the political actors, and equally importantly, avoid being perceived as partisan.

(Rakesh Sood, a former diplomat who served as Ambassador to Nepal, is currently distinguished fellow at the

Observer Research Foundations) – courtesy :The Hindu Daily, 27 May 2021.

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