Sher Bahadur Deuba has become Nepal’s Prime Minister for the fourth time. He secured massive support in the Parliament; 388 out of a total of 558 persons voting. The Nepali Congress (NC) leader was the only candidate and should have been elected uncontested, but the opposition Nepal Communist Party (United Marxist Leninist- UML) decided to vote against him; it could muster only 170 votes.
His election was necessitated by the resignation of his coalition colleague, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), who honoured his coalition commitment to the NC of sharing power, by vacating the post after nine months and initiating local bodies’ elections.
Prachanda could have refused to give up power by breaking with the NC and seeking UML’s support. It was good that he didn’t. Instead, he kept his promise to the NC as well as to the country.
Deuba’s first challenge is to maintain this political stability and consolidate the NC-Maoist coalition. It was this coalition that led to Nepal’s second Jan Andolan in 2005-06, whose goal was to create a ‘New Nepal’. But that vision was soon overtaken by instability and confusion as the NC-Maoist coalition broke down after the election of the first Constituent Assembly in 2008, unable to work out a mutual power sharing arrangement.
Subsequently, both Nepali Congress and Maoists have led governments in coalition with the UML. Such coalitions have kept them in power but not given Nepal much-needed stability and development. The NC-UML coalition did give Nepal its first republican Constitution in 2015, but this proved to be a divisive Constitution. It left out marginalised social groups like Madhesis, Jan Jatis, Dalits and women and left them dissatisfied and agitating.
That is why this NC-Maoist coalition has a better chance of giving Nepal much needed stability and development as these two major parties do not have a conflict of interest at the grassroots/constituencies level. Nor do they suffer from ideological or ethnic disagreements against the Madhesi and Jan Jati groups, like the UML does.
The UML, in coalition with the Maoists, eroded the Maoists social base in order to broadbase its own constituencies, which eventually forced Prachanda to walk out of the coalition in May 2016. Unfortunately, the UML doesn’t hesitate to invoke the social polarisation between upper castes Nepalis who live in the “pahad” — a metaphor for those who live in the hills and mountains — on the one hand, and those who live in the lowlands, the plains, also known as the “Madhes”, and Jan Jatis on the other.
Deuba, in his first statement as prime minister, has underlined three priorities; implementing the Constitution; accommodating the aspirations of the marginalised groups by amending the Constitution; and advancing the development of the people of Nepal.
All the three issues are mutually linked, particularly the one regarding implementing the Constitution while amending it. This hinges on the holding of local, provincial and national elections by January 2018. There may not be much difficulty in going ahead with the second phase of local elections on June 28. Some Madhes parties are agitating for an amendment to the Constitution as the pre-condition for participation, but they can be persuaded to give up this agitation if credible assurances are given to them that the amendments registered during Prachanda’s prime ministership after the local elections.
If both Deuba and Prachanda are to work sincerely, mobilising the required two third vote for amending the Constitution wont be impossible, even if it is difficult and challenging. Difficulties will be encountered in keeping the Deuba vote of 388 intact as some in the royalist Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) like Kamal Thapa may ask for their ideological pound of flesh in the form of a Hindu State and/or greater share of power in the government.
There are also groups within the NC and the Maoists who have reservations about the extent to which Madhesis and Jan Jatis should be accommodated. A two-thirds majority in the existing situation means that Deuba only needs nine more votes to the 388 he already has – this may not be very difficult as there were 35 abstentions at the time of his election.
The UML which is expected to oppose the requisite amendments to the Constitution, failed to get its members to vote against Deuba’s election. Some small parties which abstained may be willing to strike political deals with the Deuba-led coalition. That’s why Deuba can very easily push the amendments to the Constitution, provided he has the political will and determination to do that.
What Deuba needs today is a combination of the decisiveness of his late leader G P Koirala and the resilience and dynamism of his coalition colleague and successor Prachanda.
Another challenge in front of Deuba, which he is acutely aware of, is to maintain a credible balance between India and China. India has publicly supported the NC-Maoist coalition and is expected to continue to do so. India must widen and reinforce its development cooperation with Nepal. Importantly, it should not let the unstated and sectarian agenda of a section of political stakeholders within the ruling BJP, around the revival of the Nepal monarchy and a presumed “Hindu state” vitiate wider national interests in the Himalayan republic.
Similarly, Deuba must engage actively with China, not only because of China’s assertive push into South Asia as a whole. But he must also remain careful and attentive to ensure that Nepal’s signature on the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) doesn’t mean that his country is dragged into a relationship of economic dependency with its northern neighbour nor is it allowed to become a strategic cockpit between India and China.
There is much Nepal can learn from the experience of China’s role in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and even Pakistan. In all these countries, China has resolutely pushed its strategic objectives as well under the cover of economic cooperation and infrastructural projects.