Nepal’s rudimentary experience with its new and controversially conceived constitution (adopted in 2015) has again shown its inadequacies that make it vulnerable to political exploitation. It will take both time and imagined scenarios to make this constitution a comprehensive lodestar for governance in the Himalayan nation.
The fact that the current ruling composition, Nepal Communist Party, is a disharmonised, tentative and suspicious unification of the two principal leftist parties i.e., Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist) and Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) – makes it susceptible to internal intrigues, conspiracies and combustive tendencies. The current Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli (from Communist Party of Nepal – UML) was the first to be inducted under this Constitution in 2015, and his first premiership had ended with the withdrawal of support from the rival Communist party i.e. ‘Prachanda’ Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s Communist Party of Nepal (MC), which ironically is again at the centre of the current storm, as the tentative and restive partner in Oli’s second term as Prime Minister.
However, this so-called ‘unified’ Communist formulation was always beset with irreconcilable tugs-of-war between the two rival factions, wherein, the arrangement of Chairmanship of the newly ‘unified’ party was given to ‘Prachanda’ and the Prime Ministership to KP Sharma Oli. But as the days passed, Oli became increasingly assertive and started taking unilateral decisions, to the perceived obliviousness and disconcertment of the ‘Prachanda’ faction.
A collateral development of the ongoing fissures within the ruling dispensation was the injection of toxic and competitive nationalism (read, ‘anti- India’ sentiment) that sought to polarise popular opinions, and willy-nilly paint the rival ‘Prachanda’ faction as ‘pro-India’, and conversely, Oli as the ubernationalist.
One key constitutional appointment that played an integral and biased role in the continuing drama was the office of the President, Bidya Devi Bhandari. The constitutional role of the President in Nepal is not even that of a nominal chief executive, as Section 75 of the Constitution explicitly states, ‘The executive power of Nepal shall, pursuant to this Constitution and law, be vested in the Council of Ministers’, thereby reposing extraordinary powers in the office of Prime Minister.
Yet Bidya Devi Bhandari, who is a former member of Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal (UML) faction and his loyalist, has played a crucial role to legitimise Oli’s decisions and to give them the veneer of constitutional correctness. Recently, she facilitated the ‘constitutional coup’ by accepting Oli’s calculated recommendation to dismiss the House of Representatives and have fresh elections, in a bid to checkmate the ‘Prachanda’ faction from holding it to ransom.
Legal experts are in a quandary as the Constitution is unclear, and therefore the matter will go to the Supreme Court – but for now, the President has played along with Oli’s gambit. All eyes are now on the Chief Justice of Nepal, Cholendra SJB Rana (great grandson of Rana Prime Minister, Bir Sumsher SJB Rana), who is known for his independent mind after nullifying many decisions of the government and the parliament, earlier.
Irrespective of how the inevitable split in the Communist party plays out, the next few months will bear tremendous uncertainty and insecurity for a country that is already reeling under the Covid pandemic. As the earlier shadowboxing amongst competing politicos had led to the invocation of the convenient ‘India’ card, more of the same cannot be ruled out as each faction would want to postulate their own political muscularity and ‘independence’.
Yet despite the Chinese Ambassador to Nepal’s personal and frenetic backchannel efforts to keep the warring communist factions ‘united’, this recent crisis has exposed the limitation of ideology in the face of factional ambitions. Despite the initial brouhaha of China replacing India, which was ably supported by some shoddy diplomacy from Delhi, the popular honeymoon surrounding Beijing is also waning given China’s expansionist moves in Nepal itself. Oli recognises the subtle shift in public mood over the last couple of months and has encouraged rapprochement and dialing down of his diatribe against India.
The political and societal situation is in a flux with contradictory passions spilling out on the streets. Some protests were reported from various parts of the country with a section of people demanding the restoration of Nepal’s erstwhile monarchy and the ‘Hindu State’ status, signifying undercurrents of disillusionment with governance failures. However, there is no definitive trend in favour or against any specific party, and it would be prudent for India to stay out of any perceived preference towards any specific, partisan option.
The so-called ‘pro-India’ Nepal Congress is seemingly rudderless with its own factionalism, and it would not shy away from assuming a stridently anti-India stand in order to appeal to the electorate, who still and essentially remain unsure and wary of the ‘big brother attitude’ of India.
There is one dominant strain of the unmistakable frustration with governance in recent times. KP Sharma Oli and his government are seen as the face of rampant corruption, profligacy and manipulation. While Oli has temporarily defined the forthcoming narrative in consonance with the President, he may find the ride ahead extremely rough and isolating. In many ways, this unforeseen political development along with the opportunity to support Nepal during the forthcoming Covid vaccination drive is a serendipitous opportunity for India to ‘correct’ its popular image. India must visibly demonstrate restraint and ‘distance’ from the developing political discourse, as any perceived preference would be rendered counterproductive, immediately.
Secondly, as the hub of global vaccine production, it could provide invaluable aid that could mitigate the memories of the condescending, parsimonious and fleeting aid provided to Nepal after the debilitating earthquake of 2015. Given the overall global and decreasingly warm local perception of the Chinese ‘alternative option’ to India – Delhi would be served best by standing by the Nepalese people, as opposed to any political party or faction. The Chinese would be ruing the implosion of Communist ‘unity’, but that is inevitable whenever the chimera of the Chinese ‘alternative’ gets exposed, be it in Hambantota (Sri Lanka) or now in Kathmandu.
The writer is Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd) and former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry