The coalition government comprising two major parties — the Maoists and the Nepali Congress — has completed 100 days in office. Kathmandu has experienced zero load-shedding for the past month, from at least eight hour long power cuts earlier, thanks to the efficiency that the Nepal Electricity Board leadership displayed in detecting illegal leakages and power diversion to undue beneficiaries. A state visit by Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal to Delhi in mid-September, and that of President Pranab Mukherjee to Nepal six weeks later, are the government’s two other major achievements.
One hundred days over also means Dahal has only around 170 days left at the helm. He came to power on an understanding with the Nepali Congress — he would hand over the leadership to its chief, Sher Bahadur Deuba, in nine months. Mukherjee’s visit and its aftermath has shown initial strains in Sino-Nepal relations that seemed to be coming closer during the tenure of the previous government led by K.P. Oli, a period that coincided with the mass anger of Nepalis against India over the border blockade which caused shortages of essential goods in Nepal. There were a large number of comments on social media that said “we have not forgotten the blockade” when Mukherjee arrived here. The bilateral visits — both sides claim — have brought the relations back on track but the absence of political stability and Nepal’s reactive diplomacy may not be the basis for durable and dependable policy. It may have kept China at a distance for now, but the northern neighbour continues to command more trust and respect in Nepal.
China, except in rare cases related to Tibet’s security, is not known to have expressed its displeasure with Nepal, but Mukherjee’s visit getting precedence and priority at the cost of President Xi Jinping’s much-awaited visit in mid-October, is unlikely to be taken kindly. In Nepal, political discourse and media opinion tend to place the country within the shared sphere of influence of its two big neighbours, and political actors go the extra mile to clarify that they are sensitive to the interests of both. However, these remarks hardly ever become part of the “institutional memory” as Nepali actors have the reputation of negotiating in their individual capacity. That is why most Nepali leaders visiting India, officially or privately, and to a lesser extent those going to Beijing, are suspected of “selling out”.
Nepali Congress leader and former prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, is the latest target of such criticism in a section of the media for his alleged meeting with Lobsang Sanghye, prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile, during a seminar organised by the India Foundation in Goa recently. Even Deuba’s party’s general secretary, Sashank Koirala, said sharing the dais with Sanghye will create a misunderstanding with China.
But leaders are not as prompt in their accountability to the Nepali people. Dahal, who secured the support of the Madhesi groups by promising their grievances will be addressed through a constitutional amendment by early November, has failed to bring different sides on board. As per the constitution, the government must hold elections to the local bodies, provinces — the boundaries of both tiers are yet to be finalised — and to the parliament by January 2018. With tensions already high over boundaries at the local level, the election is bound to be a casualty. That will only further the fear that the constitution in the current form is unworkable.
It may not be too late to begin an informed debate on federalism to ensure a larger ownership of the most vexing problem in the way of the constitution becoming acceptable. Some western and Indian thinktanks with clout over Nepali Maoists are keen to bring the Madhesi and ethnic hill groups together so that Nepal’s politics is driven more by caste and ethnicity than by class and political ideology. The Maoists have formed their organisational provincial units on that line, not in conformity with the proposed structure of the provincial units.
While the parties will not think of addressing the basic issues, they will be trying a constitutional amendment, something that will not solve the problem. Resentment against Dahal has already begun to build up. He may be on his way out if the Madhesis withdraw support from the government for not having fulfilled its promise. A frequent change of government is something that Nepalis are used to, and a game that politicians would prefer to play.